A response to fairtrade (again)

by Dilhan

Having just seen Steve Knapp’s reply to my father’s interview with the New Zealand Herald, this comes as a belated but important response. Mr. Knapp trivialises my father’s argument by overlooking two very important elements

1. Fairtrade has made a significant contribution to the issue of trade justice by bringing awareness of the problem. However beyond that, the mechanism by which Fairtrade seeks to address that issue is flawed. The essence of the problem is the price the producer gets. That is inextricably linked to the system of trade that the producer is caught up in – raw material from producing countries, usually less developed, poor countries – is shipped to others for production. The most lucrative aspects of taking the product to market – branding and value addition – are therefore controlled by traders, the middlemen to him we refer. That system needs to change for any fundamental impact to be achieved. Fairtrade perpetuates it by offering a veneer of acceptability on that flawed system of trade.

2. My father’s comments were never a comparison of Dilmah vs Fairtrade. Rather it was an exploration of how we can make trade genuinely fair. Countless exposes have shown the limitations of Fairtrade, in the limited impact of its programmes on producers, to the questionable ethics of charging consumers a premium for a ‘fair’ product, and the distribution of that ‘fairtrade premium’. One would assume that the premium goes to producers, not so, for most of it goes to the retailer and the brand owner.

Importantly Fairtrade allows brand owners to abdicate their responsibility to be fair. Some brands have some higher priced, fair products which are certified by Fairtrade. Does this mean that it is acceptable for some products to be unfair?

Our argument is that the most sustainable form of fair trade is to empower the producer, allowing them to to replicate the Dilmah model, where producer adds value, producer shares success with workers and helps reinforce the future of his or her industry. The producer is much closer to their product and to their workers and industry than any foreign certification agency can ever be. As much as most producers follow a tradition of generations and therefore have an inbred passion for quality, we also understand that our workers needs an education, that their children need a future, that they need good healthcare.

All this is about money; their product generates it usually, but the issue is that it usually goes to the wrong pockets. In perpetuating and whitewashing this system, Fairtrade is ironically allowing unfair trade – a relic of colonialism – to continue without the change it needs to be more sustainable.

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