Fairtrade Fortnight:  Food for Thought

Fairtrade Fortnight: Food for Thought

It seems clichéd, but university is a good place to question things. I’m sure that for most of you, this very notion has conjured the image of wankers in berets writing in coffee shops, but this isn’t necessarily so. Many of the people we see trashed on Thursday and Saturday nights (this may be you) are our country’s future decision-makers. So, in between studying your arse off and getting your rocks off, it can’t hurt to take a moment to think about the world in which we live and how we can make it better.

It seems amazing to our generation that there was a time when women couldn’t vote. No doubt our children will also be astonished that there was ever a time when gay people couldn’t marry. It makes me wonder what their children will be astounded by. Maybe future generations will be floored by the fact that there was ever a global imbalance in standards of living. It seems a hefty challenge to address, but we live in a time of exponential change, and organisations are already working on making these wishes a reality.

Walking through campus over the last fortnight, a few people may have noticed the bollards were plastered with A4 sheets advertising “Fairtrade fortnight.” OUSA and the University of Otago have been involved with Fairtrade since 2007, so although it may be six years late, it’s time we had a look at what all this Fairtrade stuff is about.

Fairtrade is a social movement that seeks to promote producers in the developing world by creating solid trading conditions between them and Western distributors. What does this mean? It means that a group of people decided that it was stupid to buy products from some corporate giant who buys up half of Asia and turns it into a banana-making factory in which workers are cogs in their machine, but instead buy products from some farmer who owns and works his own crops and sells them at a local market. In more local terms, it is the difference between buying a piece of steak from your local butcher instead of the supermarket.

There is no denying that there is an imbalance of wealth in our world; developed countries hoard their acorns while developing countries starve in the winter. The most obvious benefit of the Fairtrade movement is that we are moving some of these acorns to where they are needed. The Fairtrade movement is a practical and logical way to spread the wealth of the western world to developing countries instead of recycling it through developed corporations.

There are many charitable organisations that are seeking to remedy this imbalance; however, Fairtrade has got a good formula that not only provides opportunities to developing countries but does so in the least patronising way. The phrase “Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, teaches a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime” is a cheesy statement that carries a poignant message. Fairtrade is a movement that provides support to developing countries not because it makes us feel good about ourselves, or because it will grant us access to some form of afterlife, but because it just makes sense.

Aside from spreading the wealth, Fairtrade also offers us a chance to create the kind of social conditions we want and expect in the development of our consumables and products. The size and scope of the capitalist industry has stolen any control we can hope to have over the conditions in which products are made. Fairtrade offers us a sort of do-over where we can influence the way in which the industry continues. For example, for Fairtrade to support a farmer or company in the developing world, their products must be manufactured under a strict set of guidelines that ensure the conditions in which the products are created are as humane as possible. These are the sort of rules that we take for granted in the Western world, like occupational safety (which we often see as a pain in the arse, but which gives workers in the developing world drastically safer working conditions).

A fair wage is also a necessity of this system, and the support of Western markets means that workers can be offered a higher wage. This money is then spent in their local community, so in essence, Fairtrade bolsters their whole market by injecting money into it. These rules are creating a market in which fair working conditions are expected. As Fairtrade gets bigger, corporations will have to take notice of consumers’ desires. So Fairtrade also has the potential to eventually abolish or at least diminish poor working conditions.

There is a large list of products that Fairtrade supports, but generally it is cash crops such as coffee, cocoa and fruits such as bananas. These are all products that the Western world has not only become accustomed to, but dependent upon. As such, there is a lot of monetary interest in these products, and large corporations have traditionally cornered the market. But really, it is the occupants of the countries in which these products originate who should have control; Fairtrade offers them the opportunity to retain control of what is theirs.

The Fairtrade movement is only the idea – all over the world, organisations such as the Fairtrade Association of Australia and New Zealand (FTAANZ) have become its enforcers. These organisations act as the gatekeepers between Western and developing markets. The FTAANZ reviews the conditions and products of developing world farmers and businesses and, if they meet the standards of the Fairtrade movement, FTAANZ offers them the Fairtrade seal and support with trading in New Zealand and Australia.

However, within this setup lurks the potential for Fairtrade ideals to be skewed. Undoubtedly, it is necessary to have a facilitator like FTAANZ between Western and developing world markets; however, left unscrutinised, there is significant scope for abuse of this system. There is a growing trend in Western markets towards products that are “ethical,” such as organically-grown fruit and vegetables and organic meats. Fairtrade products come under this umbrella of ethical products. Our markets have proven not only that consumers want these products, but that they are willing to pay more for them, meaning that there is money to be made from ethical products.

It is important that, as the Fairtrade movement grows, we watch the organisations controlling it carefully. Already questions have begun being raised as to the percentage mark-up being placed on these products, compared to the money the farmers are receiving. For this system to work, it is essential that the profits are passed on to these farmers instead of being stockpiled by these organisations. If not carefully monitored, these organisations have the potential to become just like the industrial entities they are combatting.

So why should our University support Fairtrade? OUSA President Fransisco Hernandez has been one of the leading advicates of a Fairtrade campus. He told me, “Fairtrade was a mandate given to us by the student body in 2007 through a student resolution at a general meeting. Students have taken it upon themselves to tell the OUSA executive that this is what they want.”

I questioned why the University, as a teaching facility, would support a commercial brand. “The University controls a lot of food outlets on campus, they control a lot of coffee shops and catering to their own staff,” Hernandez said. “So the University actually does own a fairly substantial commercial operation in terms of affecting the supply of coffee on campus. Second of all, the University in a strategic direction is calling on itself to be the critic and conscience of society, and supporting Fairtrade is a way of raising these important issues.

“The point of Fairtrade fortnight is just to let students know what Fairtrade is and raise awareness in the student body, just to get them thinking about these issues of trade and equity.”

Finally, I had to raise my doubts about Fairtrade revenue streams and the potential abuse of this system. “If there are those issues, they do need to be investigated, but the idea of Fairtrade as a concept, of guaranteeing that labour is performed fairly – it’s a good one,” Hernandez claimed. “If there are these issues, they need to be looked at closely, examined and corrected somewhere along the supply chain. Because the point of Fairtrade is to give the profit back to the producers, not to the middlemen, and if that’s not happening, we need to look at it and fix these issues.”

OUSA has made several edicts in regards to Fairtrade on campus. OUSA supports Fairtrade with its wallet by providing Fairtrade products at meetings; however, it is also OUSA policy to always uphold the same employment standards set out by FTAANZ for Fairtrade farmers. Though it is no doubt easier to enforce fair wages and occupational safety in the OUSA offices than it is in a banana plantation in South East Asia, the intention is still a gracious one.

I agree with Hernandez that our university’s support of Fairtrade is about more than just keeping our coffee shops stocked and lecturers’ caffeine addictions fuelled. Otago is one of thousands of universities and schools worldwide that support Fairtrade, not because they want us to buy their coffee, but because they want us to believe in their cause. By targeting educational institutions, the Fairtrade movement is ensuring that people are learning about their cause when they are most impressionable.

This may sound like brainwashing, but it’s more akin to providing new generations with alternatives to the systems that are currently in place. As far as alternatives to our current economic systems go, I think this is a good one. It’s good for us because, despite the fact that these products cost a little more, they are generally of a higher quality. But, more importantly, it is good for our whole world, it is a step towards balancing out incredibly imbalanced social and financial structures as well as ensuring a better standard for products and the workers who produce them. Nothing better than a good ol’ mutually beneficial solution.

So is Fairtrade going to make our future grandchildren scoff at the fact that the world used to be socially and financially imbalanced? In truth, probably not. But it’s a start. Our university is supporting this cause so that we, the future decision makers, are encouraged to think about what the next step we can take towards making these dreams a reality might be.
This article first appeared in Issue 12, 2013.
Posted 1:24pm Sunday 19th May 2013 by Baz Macdonald.