Helping to lead a Fairtrade revolution

Fairtrade Fortnight — this year running from February 28th to March 13th — is now an important date in the calendar of the Co-operative Movement.

One of the pioneers who put the Movement at the forefront of the fight for a fairer deal for the developing world is editor and contributor to a new guide to how Fairtrade became a major player — and why it needs to play an even bigger role in our daily shopping experience. 

John Bowes is Chair of Twin, a producer-owned membership organisation, which since 1985 has been dedicated to developing the Fairtrade supply chain. 

He is a former Managing Director of Fairtrade fruit supplier AgroFair and until 2004, he also worked for the Co-operative Group, where he was responsible for launching many ground-breaking initiatives. 

The 59-year-old campaigner is currently promoting The Fair Trade Revolution, a book charting the progress of the sector and featuring articles by many movers and shakers who have helped transform the way we shop. They include Harriet Lamb, Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation and Bruce Crowther, who established the world’s first Fairtrade Town in Garstang, Lancashire.

John Bowes said: “The book is essentially aimed at activists and people who are seeking to engage for the first time with Fairtrade. It is also of interest to academics but its basic goal is inspire ordinary people to support the Fairtrade movement. 

“A lot of books on the subject have been published and many of them are very worthy. But a couple of chapters in you start getting a bit of a headache because they are very academic and full of so many statistics and figures it becomes difficult to take in. This is written in a style deliberately pitched to a level where anyone can make sense of what is being said in a very accessible form.”

Once the preserve of quirky lefties stocking up on hard-to -source items like Nicaraguan rocking chairs, Fairtrade is now resolutely mainstream. Even global corporates like Nestle and Cadbury’s have cottoned on to the notion that the Fairtrade ideology is popular with consumers. 

An estimated seven million people in 60 countries now benefit directly from Fairtrade sales and millions more through the investment of Fairtrade premiums into local business and community improvements.

Sainsbury’s now sell 100 per cent Fairtrade bananas and Tesco, Morrisons and others all contribute to ever-growing sales of Fairtrade goods. But, as John acknowledges, it was the Co-op which most definitely led the way.

He recently gave a big presentation to leading figures in the Co-operative Group on global politics and Fairtrade and the book includes an entire chapter on the Co-operative Movement’s key role in bringing Fairtrade centre-stage.

“About 25 years ago what you had was very well-meaning people trying to make a connection with the developing world and, to be honest, they were not that concerned about the quality of the product. The point was to make that connection and develop responsible retailing in a way which could be commercial.

“I spent a great many years at the Co-op and worked with some terrific people who embraced its values and worked hard to further its responsible retailing agenda. 

“The key change came 25 years ago with Twin’s involvement and the introduction by the Co-op of own brand Divine chocolate in 2000 which made a profit was also a turning-point.

“In the early 1990s, it was the Co-operative Group which effectively pioneered the development of fair trade in the UK and recognised the potential in the mainstream market. In 2003, it took a considerable risk by switching its entire own brand coffee range to Fairtrade. Between 1996 and 2003, they stole a march on all their competitors by investing in an ambitious programme which subsequently became a catalyst for the growth of the whole sector.”

John took early retirement from the Co-operative Group in 2004 after standing down as Chief General Manager of the Food Group. But he confesses the quiet life in his country retreat near Windermere left him bored and seeking new challenges. In 2007, he took over as Managing Director of AgroFair and began working closely with Twin, the organisation which he now chairs. 

“One of the things we have tried to do is adapt to the changing world in places like Africa and Uganda and it is absolutely fascinating stuff. Events can alter on a day to day basis for people in those countries and we have to tackle issues like water scarcity, food supply, equality of the sexes, and people’s ability to be involved and make a difference in the fight for better conditions.” 

In a decade, overall sales of Fairtrade products have increased more than 40-fold to £800 million in 2009. But, as he points out, this is still a drop in the ocean.

“If we consider that the UK grocery market is estimated to be worth around £140 billion it is clear that sales of Fairtrade products still have a long way to go. Current annual Fairtrade sales still account for less than one per cent of total grocery sales. 

“We need to raise the bar and we can’t afford to stand still because the share of Fairtrade goods is still very modest and there is a lot of work to be done in transferring wealth.” 

As the book illustrates, the development of the Fairtrade Mark, and bodies like the Fairtrade Foundation have helped ensure standards are consistent and most importantly that producers stick to specific guidelines on employment and conditions. Organic production is also encouraged where possible and the Fairtrade movement is now getting to grips with other issues like carbon footprint and climate change.

John Bowes concludes: “Anyone who has visited Fairtrade farms will recognise that, great as it is, it hardly delivers European-style comforts. One of the key forward challenges for the Fairtrade movement is how to generate a greater level of wealth transference, finding the means to ensure that more money is retained by the people who need it the most.”

• The Fairtrade Revolution, edited by John Bowes, is published by Pluto Press.

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