Don’t let supermarkets become the new face of Fair Trade

The One World Shop in Glasgow is one of the independent Fair Trade retailers currently under threat.

May 11th is World Fair Trade Day: an international celebration of trade justice, and an opportunity to look back on the remarkable progress made by Fair Trade producers, campaigners and supporters over recent decades. Fair Trade certified products have been commercially available since the late 1980s1, and are made in accordance with the movement’s key principles: a living wage and suitable working conditions for producers; environmentally responsible farming methods; support for social development in farming communities, such as the building of schools and health centres; protection of human rights, including a ban on child labour; and the promotion of equal rights for female workers.

In the UK the sale of Fair Trade products is at a record high despite the recession, rising by 19% in 20122. Public awareness of the movement has greatly increased over the last decade – this is partly due to high-profile projects such as Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign, which used the charity’s strong media presence and links with the music industry as a platform for the Fair Trade message. The adoption of Fair Trade products by major supermarkets has also increased their visibility on the high street and created greater availability than ever before. Less well-known, but just as vital, are the small, independent Fair Trade shops and charities which promote awareness of the cause in towns and cities across Scotland: Rainbow Turtle in Paisley, Calico Moon on the Isle of Bute, and the One World Shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh are just some of the local businesses helping to engage communities with their informed, enthusiastic and dedicated approach to trade justice.

However, for many of these smaller organisations the future looks uncertain. The growing Fair Trade sales figures are dominated by supermarkets, meaning that the independent stores who have helped the movement to grow over decades are facing lower customer turnout and, in some cases, closure. While supermarkets make enough profit from their other, non-Fair Trade products to sell low-price Fair Trade ranges (Sainsbury’s own-brand Fair Trade tea bags sell for as little as 27p per box3 ), not-for-profit companies such as the One World Shop in Glasgow’s West End are struggling to compete.

Falling sales have forced the trustees of One World Shop to hand over their current premises on Great Western Road later this year and to look for a new, more affordable location, as income from the shop simply isn’t enough to meet running costs and rent. As well as being a loss to the local community, the shop’s closure signals a worrying trend within the Fair Trade movement: as supermarkets keen to project an ethical image increasingly adopt Fair Trade products, smaller shops which dedicate time and resources towards the advancement of Fair Trade are pushed out of the market. As Keith Taylor, Green MEP for the South East of England, has argued, “It is unsurprising that Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Top Shop are all jumping on the Fairtrade bandwagon. While this represents a positive shift, as consumer demand forces corporations to supply ethically sourced goods, a token Fairtrade range simply demonstrates how unethical other products are. We need a committed stance on the ethical sourcing of all products.”4

It is the commitment of dedicated Fair Trade shops and their suppliers – such as Traidcraft, Divine and Equal Exchange – which enables the movement to innovate and expand, improving conditions for ever-increasing numbers of workers in the process. These companies don’t see Fair Trade as a token gesture, or a marketing tool designed to attract ‘ethical consumers’. Instead, the aim is to create positive, lasting change by nurturing strong relationships with producers and their communities, as well as taking an inspired approach to product development. The supermarkets take advantage of inventive companies such as Traidcraft, which currently supplies over 450 different Fair Trade products5. Without this crucial support, Fair Trade wouldn’t be the internationally-recognised and influential movement it is today; a view echoed by Safia Minney, Managing Director of the Fair Trade clothing company People Tree: “One challenge to mainstreaming Fair Trade is to keep the standards high. It is easy to go to Dhaka, find the most skilled workers, pay 30% more and call it a day. However, Fair Trade means going to the villages and working on capacity and organisation. With Fair Trade, business requires investment in the producers.”6

For Elaine Coakley, One World Shop Glasgow’s Education Co-ordinator, working for a Fair Trade organisation means more than selling products on the shop floor. As well as managing the Glasgow store she travels to schools across the city, delivering presentations to pupils on the importance of Fair Trade and the real story of how their food, clothes and toys are made:

“The One World Shop’s education programme seeks to empower children and young people with the knowledge about unfair trading laws and the unethical treatment of workers in order to help them make ethical choices in the future.  By helping our young people to become informed global citizens we are educating future policy makers and consumers who could implement changes to make trade fair for everyone.”

It is this level of investment in the future of Fair Trade, combined with a passionate drive to share knowledge and experience with the next generation, which separates organisations such as this from the profit-driven and often cynical approach of the large corporate stores.

While One World Shop Glasgow aims to continue promoting Fair Trade within schools and other local community organisations, the impact of its work  will be greatly reduced if the shop is forced to close permanently. Independent shops rely on supporters of Fair Trade to make a considered choice not just about what they buy, but where they buy it from. Leaving the Fair Trade movement to the supermarkets would be a huge step backwards for this exceptional campaign and, most importantly, the producers and communities it has spent decades fighting for.

Lisa Jones is Secretary for the Scottish Young Greens and Retail Assistant for the One World Shop in Glasgow (http://www.oneworldshop.co.uk/). The shop is currently seeking new low-cost or rent-free premises, and would welcome any offers of retail, office or storage space. If you can help, please contact Rachel Farey, Business Manager on 0131 229 4541, or email rachel@oneworldshop.co.uk.

 

  1. http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/what_is_fairtrade/history.aspx  []
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2013/mar/02/fairtrade-taste-growing-britain []
  3. http://www.sainsburys.co.uk/groceries/index.jsp?bmUID=1366387006010 []
  4. Keith Taylor in a letter to the Guardian, Tuesday March 7, 2006 []
  5. http://www.traidcraft.co.uk/buying_fair_trade/traidcraft_products []
  6. http://www.new-ag.info/en/pov/views.php?a=1164 []
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