Tea-growers enraged by Sainsbury's withdrawal from Fairtrade

The UK grocery chain has long been a Fairtrade champion, but recently announced it would invent its own 'fairly traded' certification scheme.

British supermarket Sainsbury’s has stunned the world by announcing its departure from the Fairtrade certification program. Since 1994, the company has invested £60 million (US $76 million) in the ethical trading scheme that produces bananas, coffee, tea, chocolate, and more. Sainsbury’s withdrawal spells disaster for Fairtrade, not only because it represents significant market share, but also because it could influence other big retailers to do the same.

What Sainsbury’s has proposed, instead, is an in-house certification program called “fairly traded,” to be implemented initially for tea-growers. The company says this pilot project will build on Fairtrade standards, but there is one disturbing difference. The social premium, which is the money that Fairtrade provides to farmers on top of the guaranteed minimum price they get for their produce, would be controlled by Sainsbury’s, rather than the farmers themselves. Instead of handing over the funds annually, farmers would have to apply to a board for approval to use for specific projects.

Many African tea-growers are enraged by this suggestion, saying “it feels like colonialism.” The Guardian shared reactions from farmers at the meeting in Nairobi last month where the shocking announcement was made:

“We feel betrayed. We are expected to cross our fingers and hope that Mr. Sainsbury helps us. The power to give you money or not depends on them. It is good if they are planning to really help us but not at the cost of disempowering us. We want to be partners and friends. You want to control me. I don’t understand how a big retailer is chasing the premium going to poor people.”

Fairtrade Africa has spoken out vehemently against the change, publishing an open letter to Sainsbury’s:

“We told Sainsbury’s loud and clear: ‘Your model will bring about disempowerment.’ We are extremely concerned about the power and control that Sainsbury’s seeks to exert over us which actually feels reminiscent of colonial rule. We work for, OWN our product and OWN our premium. We see the proposed approach as an attempt to replace the autonomous role which Fairtrade brings and replace it with a model which no longer balances the power between producers and buyers.”

Why would Sainsbury’s do this?

Many people are confused. The company has been such a staunch supporter of Fairtrade for so many years, and continues to sing the praises of ethical and sustainable sourcing on its website, so why go and create its own version, rather than continuing to work with Fairtrade?

Most likely it wants to cut costs, since it can be expensive to maintain certification and sales of Fairtrade items have been falling in recent years; last year saw an 8 percent drop in overall profits. But this raises the obvious question of how good a job an in-house certification body can do if it’s operating within a restricted budget. It seems suspicious.

Nor would a new ‘fairly traded’ label be as recognizable to customers, and is likely to create yet more confusion in an already overwhelming field of certification logos.

Fairtrade logo with coffee beansFairtrade Deutschland/Promo image

Sainsbury’s insists that its scheme will benefit farmers and has apologized for giving tea-growers such short notice, but it has not put an end date on its so-called pilot project, nor does it seem to be listening to what farmers are saying:

“We reject Sainsbury’s current proposal… We believe that there is strength in unity and, as a valued and respected customer, we hope that Sainsbury’s listen to us and decide to change their approach to ensure that the 200,000 Fairtrade tea farmers and workers that they currently buy from will not be punished as a result of our decision not to partner with Sainsbury’s Foundation in their current model.”

Many shoppers in the UK have announced boycotts of the retailer and NGOs including Oxfam, the Women's Institute, Christian Aid, and others have issued a statement asking Sainsbury's to reconsider.

Tags: Fair Trade | Food Miles | Food Security | Shopping | United Kingdom

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