Fairtrade is sadly losing appeal for UK buyers

Fairtrade logo with coffee beans
Promo image Fairtrade Deutschland

Sales of fairtrade-certified products dropped in 2014. Specialty buyers think they can do a better job sourcing products independently.

For the first time ever, Fairtrade International saw its UK sales fall by nearly 4 percent in 2014. This is a significant drop for an organization that has been a forerunner in ethical shopping for the past two decades. Shoppers are less interested in looking for the Fairtrade logo than they are wanting to save the extra dollars or support alternative sourcing methods.

Fairtrade International’s ubiquitous logo is found on a variety of products including chocolate, coffee, tea, sugar, cotton, bananas, and flowers. It is meant to be an easy way for consumers to recognize that a product has been purchased fairly from its original producer. But, as its critics point out, Fairtrade does not meet everyone’s needs.

Direct trade is seen as an appealing alternative, in which buyers deal directly with producers, minus the Fairtrade “middlemen” and farmers’ cooperatives, and, in some cases, pay much more for a high-quality product than the Fairtrade-mandated minimum. The Fairtrade system, according to some buyers, compromises quality because it sets prices a year in advance, without knowing what the quality of the next harvest will be:

“Fairtrade coffee is essentially futures coffee,” Richard Shannon of Workshop Coffee in London tells the Guardian. Specialty roasters want to be able to assess the coffee’s quality before committing to buying specific amounts, if any at all. “For us the main thing is quality, and we’re prepared to pay for quality.”

Breton chef Olivier Roellinger told the Guardian that he strives to treat his providers of spices the same as all his producers, paying a fair price when they have high quality spices to sell and trusting them to manage good and bad years on their own.

“The Fairtrade scheme is kind of neo-imperialistic,” Roellinger says. “Can you imagine what British farmers would say if their American customers came to them and said, ‘Well, I’m only going to trade with you guys if you get together and I can buy from all of you at the same time’?”

While Shannon and Roellinger make legitimate points, I think they miss the point of Fairtrade. Fairtrade strives to do exactly what these two buyers wish to avoid – protect small-scale farmers in years of great need and poor harvest by providing them with a secure source of income, support from a cooperative, and community benefits. Would Roellinger simply abandon his producers during those years when they don’t have high quality spices to sell? Most can’t fall back on crop insurance or social welfare assistance to make ends meet.

It’s naïve to treat these farmers the same as a wealthy (by comparison) producer in the developed world. The playing field is not level between producers in rich and poor countries – from basic school education, access to training, markets, and credit to the ability to invest sufficiently to meet international standards.

Fairtrade doesn’t promise to save the world, nor will it lift farmers out of poverty on its own, but I don’t think people should be so quick to brush it aside. Fairtrade used in conjunction with direct trade could be a potentially powerful force, rather than rival trade models, and there's no reason why the best and highest quality products can't be Fairtrade.

As Harriet Lamb, CEO of Fairtrade International explains, "If a company knows of a group producing at a particular high quality, they can always support them to become Fairtrade certified."

Fairtrade is sadly losing appeal for UK buyers
Sales of fairtrade-certified products dropped in 2014. Specialty buyers think they can do a better job sourcing products independently.

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