Should Fair Trade be a matter of choice?

Alongside the selection of Fairtrade coffee at the tuck shop in a certain Fairtrade certified institution in Oxford, stands several jars of Nescafé. And these particular jars do not contain the 1% of Nestlé’s coffee products which are Fairtrade certified.  Kudos to Nestlé for that 1%, but the company  “has not changed its policies and practices in any other area, most notably that of the unethical marketing of baby milk in southern countries,” (People and Planet). So I asked the lady behind the counter what lay behind this curious choice of shelf-fellows;  “Well, you’ve got to give people a choice, haven’t you?”  she replied, somewhat tetchily.

At first I was stymied. It’s a good question. Aren’t you morally obligated to give people the choice about what to buy? Isn’t it up to them to decide if Fairtrade is more important to them than saving pennies or taste preferences?  But the more I thought about it, the more certain I felt that the answer was No.

The price that the Fairtrade mark has paid for becoming almost mainstream, is that many subconsciously see it as something like a ‘brand’, and we take it for granted that we must be offered a wide choice of brands. We  forget that the Fairtrade label is a mark of justice, that it’s about ethics not aesthetics.

Offering people a choice between brands, or between  full and low fat is a different matter. These choices affect only the buyer him- or herself. Offering them a choice between organic and not organic, or offering a plastic carrier bag is more controversial, because you are offering them the choice to add more pollution to our already struggling planet, and that’s something that will affect all of us – including the buyer – in the long-run.

But when you offer one person the choice of buying something that is not fairly traded you are, in effect, offering them the choice of depriving another person – the producer – of a whole host of choices. While the buyer is being given a choice of what to buy in the tuck shop, the producer – by possibly being paid less than a fair price for his or her (often backbreaking) labour – may be being deprived of the choice of putting food on the table for their family, the choice of paying for adequate housing or medicine, or the choice of sending their children to school…

So no, I don’t believe there is a moral obligation to offer people that particular choice. On the contrary, I think it is our moral obligation to remove that choice altogether, just as we would want to remove the choice of buying the products of child or slave labour. Indeed, some current trading practices that we unwittingly participate in make producers little more than slaves.

Of course,  a product not being Fairtrade certified does not automatically mean that it was unfairly traded, but there is always a risk that it was. So until the choice has been removed altogether, perhaps people who are considering which coffee to choose would find the decision a little easier if we asked Nestlé (et al) to clearly label the remaining 99% of their coffee ‘Not Fairly Traded”.


8 thoughts on “Should Fair Trade be a matter of choice?

  1. mari March 18, 2012 / 2:08 am

    Excellent Sabita. Its not something I’ve ever thought through so thanks for spelling it all out so clearly. Have often wondered how on earth Nestle cd be given a clean chit and did wonder if they had in fact cleaned up their act, thanks for clearing up doubts and giving everyone some clarity on the issue.

    mari marcel t

    • sabitaisabel March 18, 2012 / 1:21 pm

      Thanks, Mari. Of course, it is not the whole of Nestlé that has been given a clean chit – just that one product. It would be great if we could build on that impulse and get them to expand their fairtrade range.

  2. Lindy Montgomery March 18, 2012 / 10:08 am

    I totally agree – I’m so fed up of going to the supermarket and finding the little section of fairtrade goods on the top shelf behind the pillar, where nobody will see them. We don’t buy any Nestle goods – haven’t for years – even my 4 year old knows which chocolate bars are made by baddies! (although since Cadbury was bought a few years ago, the list of kids’ chocolate bars made by ‘goodies’ is shrinking…..). I know of far too many NGO offices that stock Nestle coffee because it is the nicest instant coffee available in their supermarket, despite their own campaigns against companies like this……What can we do to get the message out more in the open? I feel that it was a trendy subject a few years ago, and now it has been forgotten a bit. (also, interestingly, I find that Nestle doesn’t shout its name about in the UK as it clearly thinks that people may not buy a product if it is made by them. Over in Africa, or here in Australia, they are all over the place. There must be a message in there somewhere….)

    • sabitaisabel March 18, 2012 / 1:38 pm

      Thanks, Lindy. You can still give them Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and Cadbury’s Chocolate Buttons :-). Some would say boycott unethical companies altogether, but I think it’s important to encourage them when they have made the effort (maybe we’re morally obliged to eat tons of chocolate!) and show them that being goodies pays off too 😉

  3. Lindy Montgomery March 18, 2012 / 10:10 am

    PS – while we are on the subject – we feel the same about beauty products tested on animals. It should never be an option that people have! And its so difficult to find companies that are not owned by the large, mainstream brands like Unilever and Proctor and Gamble. Even Pringels and Marmite!!!!

  4. mynyrorganic March 18, 2012 / 6:44 pm

    I like the idea of a ‘not fairly traded’ label. I have to say I don’t agree that choosing not to buy organic produce only affects the buyer though. The pesticides that are used to produce non-organic produce have an effect on all of us through polluting our whole environment. Just one example – devastating effect on bees whose loss would wipe out large parts of the food chain.

    There’s also an issue around use of pesticides in developing countries where workers are not given any protection against the toxic chemicals they’re expected to apply with devasting effects on health.

    Furthermore there’s a massive issue around GM and who controls food production – the mega companies developing GM aim to make producers totally dependent on their GM products (massive effect again on farmers in developing countries). GM also affects the whole environment eg polluting organic farms in the area and therefore affecting livelihood of those farmers.

    Totally agree with Lindy re beauty products. Sadly three companies that were accredited by PETA have recently come off their list as they’ve started animal testing again in order to sell in China (that’s Avon, Estee Lauder and Mary Kay).

    As you said, most of the brands are just labels not real brands, and products all made from the same (synthetic) ingredients in the same factories in the Far East.

    Quick plug for Neals Yard Remedies – certified organic – no nasties – only use herbs and essential oils as active ingredients, most are grown in the UK and those imported are fairly traded (they actively visit the producers to check the whole process) and the products are hand made in an eco factory in Dorset.

    • sabitaisabel March 18, 2012 / 9:27 pm

      You are absolutely right, mynyrorganic, and several people have now pointed out my error. I shall amend the blog for posterity 🙂

  5. Nick K-C March 20, 2012 / 6:17 pm

    Oh for choice ! Down in fluffyland Dorset, even though I live in a ‘Fairtrade Town’, Oxfam has stopped selling Fairtrade coffee and the Co-op only sells it in jars that last a few days and cost a fortune. As I boycott Tesco so that I can complain about all the damage they have done to the local community there is no Fairtrade coffee in reasonable quantities available anywhere within 20 miles. So first action wherever I break out of the county is to locate the coffee.

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