FairTrade under pressure: What now for the movement after 25 years?

‘Almost all Fairtrade is co-operative and the best of it connects co-operatives through the supply chain’

In 1994 Cafédirect, Clipper and Green & Blacks launched the first products carrying the Fairtrade Mark in the UK. In the lead-up to the 25th anniversary we spoke with Sarah Wakefield (food sustainability manager, Co-op Group), Julia Nicoara (director of public engagement, Fairtrade Foundation) and Ed Mayo (secretary general, Co-operatives UK) to look at how the movement has impacted co-ops – and what the future holds.

Fairtrade has come a long way in 25 years; it works with over 1.6 million farmers and workers (23% of whom are women) in more than 1,400 Fairtrade producer organisations across 73 countries.

Co-operatives UK’s Ed Mayo was instrumental in the birth of the Fairtrade Mark. “My family was a regular user of produce from the alternative trade organisation, Traidcraft, and their recycled toilet paper ruled at home when I was a child,” he says. 

“I was a couple of years out of university, working for development campaign group WDM, when I met two people thinking big about global justice. Martin Newman was at the creative agency Imagination and Richard Adams was co-founder of Traidcraft. Richard was concerned about a crisis in traditional Fairtrade produce and the need to find new consumers for high-quality products. Martin was seized with the idea of a mainstream consumer label as a guarantee of provenance in terms of producer benefits.”

Mr Mayo joined a small team which developed the concept. The Fairtrade Mark that resulted drew lessons from Max Havelaar coffee, sold in the Netherlands and co-developed by the UCIRI co-op in Mexico, but added explicit criteria that could be accredited to make Fairtrade possible anywhere. 

Mr Mayo worked on the first draft of these criteria with Belinda Coote (then of Oxfam) and helped to shape the brand identity, coining the term Fairtrade as a single word that could be trademarked. 

“Almost all Fairtrade is co-operative and the best of it connects co-operatives through the supply chain, from producers through to retail co-ops. Fairtrade is essentially a co-op brand,” he says.

The Co-op Group’s Sarah Wakefield has been involved in Fairtrade since she set up a  campaign group at the age of 14. She joined the
Group’s graduate scheme after looking for an ethical business to work for. 

She believes the Co-op has been involved in Fairtrade since the start because of its members. “Some of the core Fairtrade campaigners are also Co-op members. And those people have been at the core of why we were involved as a co-op so early, and also in generating the energy that made Fairtrade a national and now global movement.”

She adds: “At the Co-op, we believe Fairtrade is the gold standard because of its additional requirements around price, premium and producer voice. The Fairtrade minimum price is determined not by us, but by an independent organisation. 

“The premium is also set independently – and feeds into the third element, producer voice. How the premium is spent is determined by the local communities. And that is really important, because sitting here in Manchester, we do not know the full needs of a small cocoa producer in the Ivory Coast.”

Recent analysis by the Fairtrade Foundation, conducted by GlobeScan, shows Fairtrade is still the most visible ethical label in the UK. But, says the Foundation’s Julia Nicoara, “it is vital that we maintain visibility because that’s what drives the most impact for farmers and workers.

“The one thing all farmers and workers in our system need is to sell more of their goods under Fairtrade terms, because if there is not enough consumer demand, they have no choice but to sell their products at a loss to the conventional market.” 

She adds: “When there are lots of products with the Fairtrade Mark on our shelves we all benefit. Consumers know our standards have been met and more producers get higher prices – this is a virtuous circle, but it only works when businesses source Fairtrade goods and we buy them.”

One challenge is the growth in alternative food assurance labels, from the Rainforest Alliance (an NGO which works “at the intersection of business, agriculture, and forests to make responsible business the new normal”) to retailers’ in-house certifications such as Sainsbury’s Fairly Traded.

“When we launched it, the Fairtrade Mark offered an entirely new proposition,” says Ed Mayo. “There are now over 100 different food assurance labels on the market, but in reality many offer only an ‘ethics lite’ approach and the sheer number of labels baffles and bamboozles most consumers. The Fairtrade Mark has been copied and hasn’t been perfect but in footballing terms, it remains the Lionel Messi of ethical labels.”

Sarah Wakefield adds: “More labels is not making it easy for people to make decisions. In terms of why it’s happening, it’s complicated and depends on the organisation making that decision.

“Fairtrade is challenging to conventional business models. It’s a radical way of organising a supply chain that takes control out of your hands. I think this is a good thing as it puts more in the hands of producers. But I think that is challenging for other organisations, it’s a loss of control.”

What can Fairtrade do about this?

Ms Wakefield is adamant there should be no change to the Fairtrade model. “We’re seeing issues today that still speak to why Fairtrade is important. Take the coffee price crisis – for all those coffee farmers not receiving the Fairtrade minimum price, they are now receiving below the cost of production for that coffee. It demonstrates why even after 25 years, Fairtrade still has a very relevant model.

“We need to articulate this more clearly, remind people why they got so fired up about Fairtrade in the first place, and be really challenging of other organisations who choose a different approach.”

Julia Nicoara agrees: “While we celebrate 25 years, it’s important to remember that Fairtrade does not just represent certification, but also a global grassroots movement that constantly seeks to improve, to drive greater value for farmers and workers. This is why we are about more than the Mark, and we go beyond certification.”