Fairtrade future: How do we deliver for producer co-ops?

Interview with Labour/Co-op MP Preet Kaur Gill on the challenges facing the movement as it marks Fairtrade Fortnight

Fairtrade – which helps producers in growing countries achieve sustainable and equitable trade relationships – has a longstanding relationship with co-operatives. Many Fairtrade producers are organised as co-ops, and in the UK, retail co-ops are vital supporters. 

Another supporter is the Co-op Party, which champions Fairtrade and acknowledges the importance of ensuring sustainable livelihoods for the farmers and workers within them, in the context of fragile global supply chains.

The Co-op Party will continue to champion the Fairtrade movement but it needs to rethink the way it markets itself, said Labour/Co-op MP Preet Kaur Gill, ahead of Fairtrade Fortnight (22 February – 7 March). 

“The Co-op Party has been at the heart of the Fairtrade movement in the UK for over 25 years,” she adds. “Like us it is internationalist and wants to spread wealth more fairly. We share the same values and believe that Fairtrade is still the best way of lifting farmers in the global south out of poverty.”  

Ms Gill, who chairs the Co-op Party’s parliamentary group and is shadow international development secretary, is the first Sikh female Labour MP, representing Edgbaston. 

“We all want to see the Fairtrade movement succeed,” she says, “because it is the best way of ensuring that everyone gets an equal share and stops the big corporations from completely controlling the market.” 

Seen by many as a rising star in the Party, Ms Gill shops at Birmingham’s Bearwood, Harborne and Quinton stores run by the Co-op Group and Central England Co-op. Last year she took an active role in promoting Fairtrade Fortnight in Parliament and this year is looking forward to joining in the online fortnight whose theme is ‘Climate, Fairtrade and you’.

While Fairtrade grocery sales have grown in the UK and around the world, non-grocery sales have slumped, warns Michael Gidney, CEO of the Fairtrade Foundation. Another serious challenge has seen some supermarkets and corporations pull out of Fairtrade certification in favour of their own ‘fairly traded’ lines – facing shoppers with a dazzling array of logos, from red British tractors to blue sustainable fish. This blurs the distinction for Fairtrade and has hit its market share. 

The retail co-ops are among the few big players to stay loyal to the scheme: the most recent high-profile defection saw KitKat announce last June that it was severing its links with Fairtrade and would instead source cocoa from farms in the rival Rainforest Alliance scheme. 

“Over 21,000 Co-op members signed a petition calling on the company to reconsider. That shows the real strength of feeling,” says Ms Gill. “We called the CEO of Nestlé into Parliament and asked them to rethink, but sadly they didn’t. That decision impacted over 27,000 farmers and producers in West Africa, many of them women who will now earn just 74p a day.”

Ms Gill believes Fairtrade needs to look again at how it markets itself in an increasingly competitive environment. Although co-op stores stock only Fairtrade bananas and were the first supermarket to do so, most of its competitors stock bananas certified by other schemes, alongside small quantities of Fairtrade. “We are all familiar with buying bananas,” she says. “The non-Fairtrade ones are nearly always bigger and cheaper, the Fairtrade ones often small and packaged in a plastic bag at the end of the shelf. When families face increasing austerity, it’s not surprising they are not willing to try the Fairtrade ones.”

Ms Gill wants to bring together all the different parts of the co-op movement – the big retail societies, Labour/Co-op MPs and smaller food co-ops – with the Fairtrade Foundation to look at how its products can be more attractive to consumers. “We need to rethink how we market Fairtrade,” she says. “Dialogue is so important, we need to find a way of increasing its market share.”

Ms Gill is proud of her parliamentary brief and dismisses the fact that she shadows a government department which no longer exists. “By keeping the shadow international role, Keir Starmer is giving a clear commitment about the priorities of a future Labour government,” she insists, adding: “The government’s retreat from the world stage is shocking and makes a mockery of ‘global Britain’. The fact that they are not going to have the parliamentary debate about reducing the UK’s international aid commitment from 0.7 to 0.5% of GDP until after the G7 summit [to be held in Cornwall from 11-13 June] shows the government knows it doesn’t have the support.” 

She is also critical of the government on post-Brexit deals: ”There is no real parliamentary scrutiny of the trade deals and that’s why we haven’t seen Fairtrade hard-wired into them.”

To make Parliament more representative, Ms Gill wants to see many more women enter politics and will be promoting International Women’s Day on 8 March, which has the theme #ChoosetoChallenge. 

She says the recent viral video of a Handforth Parish Council meeting highlights the issues many women face in politics and sympathises with the predicament facing the clerk, Jackie Weaver. “As women we’ve all had similar experiences.”

But what really concerns her is the surge in domestic violence and rape cases during lockdown. “The police don’t have the resources to deal with it,” she says. “The situation is made worse by children being away from school, meaning cases are not being picked up or are going unreported. As a country I’m really worried about our mental health.”  

Ms Gill is following closely the farmers’ protests in India and tweets regularly about them. She is particularly concerned to hear that Delhi police are investigating an “international conspiracy” and that supporters of Narendra Modi’s government have burned effigies of famous people who have backed the protests – including climate champion Greta Thunberg and pop star Rihanna. 

“Greta is only a child,” she says. “Millions of women around the world look up to Greta – including my own two daughters. She is a hero to them. I hope we see her at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, and would welcome her with open arms.”