The Impact of Fairtrade

Please give a brief overview of the Fairtrade Foundation’s aims.

Fairtrade is about challenging the system of global trade in a way that allows producers of the products that we enjoy here in the UK to earn a decent living, to produce their products sustainably and to work their way out of poverty. Often the products that we enjoy are bought in a way that the farmers have very little say over how it happens, and they’re paid a very low price. That has a real knock-on effect on their livelihoods, the decisions they make in their lives as to whether they can feed their families or send their children to school. Even though chocolate, for example, is a 4-billion-pound industry in the UK, a lot of the farmers that farm cocoa in West Africa live well below the poverty line.

What is the Fairtrade Minimum Price?

The Fairtrade minimum price should be the minimum cost of sustainable production of a product. For example, if you’ve been growing coffee all year, you should be paid at the minimum, enough to cover your costs and make a reasonable living. It varies by product and by origin. The minimum price is also slightly different for organic products as well.

How was the Fairtrade Foundation established and what contributed to its success as a globally recognised mark of assurance?

The Fairtrade mark has had its 25th birthday last year. It’s an independent certification system which is important because as a system we want to see farmers lives improve but that system has to be transparent and people need to be able to trust that it does what it says it does. While Fairtrade standards are numerous and there is so much in it, there is also simplicity of the concept. Most people don’t want to think that someone has been exploited for them to enjoy their cuppa. Once people understand how much exploitation there is, particularly in food production, I think having something act as a shorthand for assurance and knowing you can trust that mark is reasonably straightforward. The trust is strong in the Fairtrade mark and as a movement and a system, Fairtrade has been bold about what we stand for.

What is the biggest success the Fairtrade Foundation has had since establishment?

The impact. I’ve been very lucky to meet quite a lot of Fairtrade producers. When you see the real tangible difference to the way people live. For example, at the end of 2018, I spent some time on tea farms in Tamil Nadu in India. The workers on the tea farms have been on the Fairtrade system for 25 years and they are really seeing the long-term benefits. It was so incredible because they’ve got this amazing school that they’ve put a lot of Fairtrade premium money into. One of the biggest things they’ve put Fairtrade money into in that region is education, bursary funds, scholarships, that’s sort of thing and investing in the school. Women who’ve had no education now have children who are at University and graduating.

What projects are you proud of?

I’m proud of the campaign work that we’re doing around the living income because it’s a complex subject and I think we’ve had to be quite brave to go out and talk about it. The living income reflects what people need to be in good health, to meet their basic need and to be able to have the resilience to handle their problems. Living income is often a bit higher than the minimum wage but a lot of these farmers are not waged, it’s about what they can sell. We are trying to move more towards recognising the need for a living income.

What impact do Fairtrade products have on the environment?

Fairtrade standards are about sustainability and you can’t have social and economic sustainability without looking at environmental sustainability as well. Fairtrade standards help the farmers to do that and to move away from chemical pesticides. They can also access training through Fairtrade so they can move towards more organic structures. A lot of these environmental solutions are well known, but people can only do the best practises when they have that safety net. If you’re fighting for every penny, you can’t think about the things that may protect the planet or improve long-term. If people get more secure in their livelihood, they can then start thinking about how they can become more sustainable in their practice.

What specific challenges have climate change posed to Fairtrade businesses, products and the foundation?

We are hearing a lot from our producers, and have been for some time, on the impact of climate change on them. The seasons are becoming less predictable. Many of the Fairtrade products are rain-fed and are not irrigated and the rain isn’t coming when they expect, or it’s too much or too little. Some products will only grow within a certain range, which is certainly the case with tea which is very specific. They also get extreme events where rain they should have gotten over four months falls all at once and destroys infrastructure and washes roads away. Additionally, cocoa farmers have a fungal disease called black pod which can affect the cocoa and when the conditions are exceptionally hot and damp it can spread widely and rapidly and destroy their crop. There has been a lot of this in the last few years. It has been incredibly difficult for Fairtrade farmers to adapt.

How will Brexit affect the Fairtrade foundation and products certified as Fairtrade?

We don’t know at the moment those trade deals just don’t exist. We have no idea what the impact will be on our producers and how they’re going to trade, and it is a worry because the biggest problem that producers can face is market access. All we can do is continue to ask and remind those in government that any of those new trade deals need to take into account that people’s livelihoods in the global south depend on those trade deals. If there is to be tariffs and quotas imposed, that will affect farmers in the global south that rely on selling their products into the UK. Trade deals must consider the livelihood of producers and remind people it’s not just about what is best for the UK.

How likely are consumers to choose Fairtrade products over non-Fairtrade counterparts?

We hear that 8/10 people support Fairtrade and think it is very important that farmers are not exploited, but there is a gap between what people buy and what they say is important to them. Some people feel so strongly about it that they will go out of their way to get products that align with their values the best. Sometimes people are loyal to the brand they like the best and sometimes it is about availability. There are a lot of people who would genuinely like to buy Fairtrade, but it has to be visible. There are of course a few people that we still need to get the message out to as well.

Do you believe that Fairtrade items remain within budget, despite the additional cost of the Fairtrade Premium?

Fairtrade premium is a bit of extra money on top of the price, paid by the companies to the producer groups for community development for improvements and the betterment of society. It doesn’t necessarily end up as a premium on the consumer. You get your own brand chocolate and coffee from supermarkets which are still relatively inexpensive can be Fairtrade. Retail pricing has very little relationship with what goes to the farmers. There are Fairtrade items that are more expensive, but these are often luxury or artisanal things. There is that much variety that there is something to fit your budget. We also need to remember that the reason dirt cheap tea or coffee is because someone is paying the price for it.

What current goals are in place for Fairtrade in the future?

  1. To make sure that any change that is created by Fairtrade is lasting, delivers impact to the producers and that they are becoming more and more able to provide to sustain their livelihoods.
  2. To fight for producers to achieve that living income and dignified living way of life that we hope for them.
  3. To drive demand in the UK. Even though it feels sometimes like the Fairtrade mark is everywhere, there’s still huge potential for growth. We want people to insist that trade must benefit the people at the start of the production chain
  4. To ensure that the process farmers aren’t going to be badly impacted by Brexit.
  5. To enable producers to become partners within their supply chain and that they’re knowledgeable about their supply chain and have a voice that can influence the way things are done.
  6. To continue to create interest and commitment to Fairtrade on the consumer side.

Please give three examples of unusual products that are Fairtrade certified.

Gold, Tomatoes and Vodka


Thank you very much to Joanna Milis and the Fairtrade Foundation for agreeing to be interviewed and giving such in-depth and considered answers. If you would like to know more about the Fairtrade Foundation or get involved, please visit their website at https://www.fairtrade.org.uk/.