Examining Fairtrade

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A Fairtrade convention. St Andrews is a designated Fairtrade town
A Fairtrade convention. St Andrews is a designated Fairtrade town
A Fairtrade convention in Spain, St Andrews is a designated Fairtrade town. Photo: WikiCommons

“Buy organic produce!” or “Buy locally!” are some of the things that might cross your mind as you scour the isles of Tesco, Morrisons or Sainsbury’s to pick up your weekly groceries. But have you ever thought “Buy ethically?” And what does buying ethically even mean?

Well, this issue had not been at the top of my shopping list until I had an enlightening conversation with the chair of the Fairtrade Committee, Tucker Diego. Mr Diego is the sustainability officer, based in the University’s environmental team, as well as the chair of the Fairtrade committee. The committee itself is composed of a mix of students and staff, including representatives of Residential and Business Services, Procurement, the Students’ Association (including the environmental and ethics officer) and a representative from partners in the town’s Fairtrade group. This team plays a key role in promoting Fairtrade products and raising awareness about fair trade. For example, did you know that many products around campus (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, sugar, bananas, etc.) are fair trade? In fact, since April 2006 the University has achieved “Fairtrade University status”.

You may be thinking, as I was this morning: that’s all well and good but what exactly is Fairtrade? In a nutshell, the Fairtrade Foundation is an independent non-profit organisation, as well as a growing international movement, working to “transform trading structures and practices in favour of the poor and disadvantaged”. The foundation seeks greater transparency in international trade, where the price of goods covers the cost of production as well as the living costs of the workers. In a world where the economic gap between producer and consumer is widening dramatically, it is necessary to realise to what extent our consumption directly affects the lives of many human beings around the world.

In a wine tasting event, organised for the Fairtrade Fortnight, St Andrews students were able to taste Fairtrade wines from South African producers. Apart from confirming that the wine was delicious, Mr Diego told me about the poor conditions that these workers suffer from. Despite the abolishment of the apartheid system (in the early 1990s), many of the workers still live on the plantations in conditions not dissimilar to slavery (they don’t own their own houses, etc). With the help of Fairtrade, the workers on these vineyards have been guaranteed a premium of everything they help produce. This premium goes directly to the representatives of the workers themselves and is spent, as agreed upon by each worker, according to the needs of the community (healthcare, education, etc). In fact, on the same Fairtrade vineyards that the students were able to sample the other day, the worker’s representatives controlled 25 per cent of the company.

Along with events such as wine tasting or film screenings, the St Andrews Fairtrade organisation also hosts talks such as the one by Fatima Ismael on 1 March 2014. This fascinating woman is a Nicaraguan agronomist engineer who has 25 years of experience working with producers in coffee plantations. During her talk, she touched on many important issues brought up by the spread of Fairtrade in Nicaragua. Interestingly, she has seen that the local cultural and political hierarchies are reflected in the gendered conditions of the workers and therefore, the financial power between men and women is vastly different. Passionate about equal rights, she was outraged to see that despite being involved in some of the most intensive labor, the women’s work was quickly taken away from them when they handed it over to the market—a male dominated world in this case. Therefore, Fairtrade taps into the very root of inequality amongst various groups of people and empowers consumers and producers alike to become equal agents in the global economy.

There is still the question of what you can do to promote the organisation and think ethically. When I asked him this question, Mr Diego gave me a very interesting response that I truly feel will apply to my daily life—and hopefully, yours as well. Fairtrade is more than an organisation that promotes ethical rights for producers, it is also a movement and a new way of thinking about the world. Thinking in terms of ‘Fairtrade’ is to be a person who makes informed decisions about the products they consume and understands that these products are directly related to human beings. It is about being curious and respectful towards our world and acknowledging our constant state of interdependence. For example, what brand of coffee helped you pull an all-nighter to write your essay the other night? On a more serious note, Fairtrade is part of a growing mosaic of different organizations discussing sustainable development and promoting free communication amongst the various social hierarchies that can restrict us.

Communication is one of the most important factors in our well being as a people. When Fatima Ismael concluded her talk the other night, she said that one of the biggest issues facing the planet was climate change. The workers in Nicaragua have needed to diversify their crops in order to meet demands because a fungus, spread by the changing climate, is spreading amongst the coffee plants (each plant taking four years to reach maturity) and reducing their production yield by 40 per cent. The workers in these plantations are well aware of these issues and it would benefit the world greatly if their voices were heard as equal witnesses of climate change. Overall, from the concept of ‘fairness’ stem other aspects such as equality, communication, human rights, etc. that promote our general well-being as a human species in harmony with itself and our environment.

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