Fair Trade – A story not told enough?

Fair Trade Coffee

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 20th July

In food and beverages, ethical and sustainable products are a booming niche market sector, which has doubled in the last four years.

Fair Trade is leading the way, averaging an astonishing 50% year-on-year growth over the last five years, according to Fairtrade Australia New Zealand operations manager Craig Chester.

Talk about recession-busting. In barely 10 years, products bearing the Fairtrade ANZ label now generate sales in excess of $191 million.

Chocolate is largest segment of the fair trade market, at 62%, followed by coffee at 31%, and tea at 6%.

Fair Trade is a certification system that allows importers and retailers of products from developing countries to sell them under the Fair Trade label. So what does Fair Trade actually mean in practice?

This was the discussion I had with Bellingen-based coffee roaster Amelia Franklin. For Amelia, being herself perhaps unique as the proprietor of a 100% woman-owned coffee roasting business, a very important element of the Fair Trade system is its strong support of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

“To be Fair Trade is to be a co-op, which is a group of small farmers with small plots, getting together and selling their product as a community”, she explained.

“One of the main guidelines is that women have an equal voice in the co-op. There needs to be women representing all the farmers’ families, and there needs to be women making decisions. When you look at countries like Papua New Guinea (PNG), where the only people to sit in the circle are men, that changes the dynamic. That gives women a voice. I think that’s a good thing”, she said.

Fair Trade

For Amelia, another very important part of Fair Trade is its support of education.

“The children are going to school, they’re not working”, Amelia told me. “So you’ve got maybe 500-1000 family members in the co-op, and one member might cover up to 15-20 people, including several children. If you have 500-1000 members, then that means that all those children are going to school, and all those women have a voice.”

Fair Trade also supports sustainable agricultural practices, although the system itself does not duplicate or replace organic certification. Fair Trade producers are typically small-scale farmers, working on two-hectare plots, so ‘they’re not putting fertiliser and pesticides on their coffee’, said Amelia.

Whereas in large-scale coffee production, ‘you’re looking at deforestation and full irrigation, and pesticides and fertilisers because you’re completely stuffing with the environment, to engage in that kind of monoculture’, she said.

In terms of the difference that the Fair Trade premium – 2% of the market price on green beans – makes, this is determined democratically by the co-operative through a discussion and voting process.

“[The co-op] will have a number of projects they want to achieve”, Amelia told me. “One of the first things they usually do is put in a nurse’s post in their community, so they have direct access to primary health care. I’ve been to PNG and in remote areas the basic health care is minimal. And many people don’t access that health care because they have to pay, and they can’t afford it.”

“Also there’s often no school nearby, so the second thing they do is build a school and fund a teacher”, she added.

Coffee – whether it’s Fair Trade or not – is a commodity crop for export. So what about support for growing basic food groups?

“There is a massive problem in PNG with the food quality”, Amelia told me. “It’s terrible. Many people live on a diet of canned meat and two-minute noodles. Supermarkets are full of canned produce from China, that’s what people are eating.”

“I visited a cocoa-growing Fairtrade community. Fairtrade were supporting a lot of women to be trained in horticulture, and encouraged them to grow their own food. Australians don’t see that as part of Fair Trade, they don’t see what it does on the ground [in countries like PNG]. There are so many good stories to tell, but Fair Trade isn’t telling them enough. It’s not perfect, but they do really good work”, Amelia finished.