Liberation talks to Harriet Lamb, Chief Executive of Fairtrade International about her newly updated book from Ebury Press: Fighting the Banana Wars and Other Fairtrade Battles
- What inspired you to update your book now?
The book was written in 2008 and it was getting embarrassing given just how out of date so many facts and figures had become. Fairtrade sales have more than doubled since the book first went to press and there are now almost double the numbers of producer organisations in Fairtrade.
- You have worked with a wide range of Fairtrade producer organisations in your career, can you tell us about tell us about a group that was facing particularly difficult challenges and how they overcame them?
I’ve always been most inspired by groups working in conflict zones such as the olive oil farmers in Palestine. The coffee farmers in the Sopacdi Co-operative in The Congo have been supported by Twin in a region once ravaged by conflict and violence where trade had been abandoned. Now numbers of farmers have increased from less than 300 to more than 5,000, with women much more central in the workforce, producing high quality speciality Fairtrade coffee.
We are also just starting to work with small-scale artisanal miners in Africa, thanks to a grant from Comic Relief. Last summer I visited the gold miners in Tanzania and I have never in all my time fighting against unfair trade, felt so shocked. The conditions in which the miners work takes your breath away. The miners go down shafts which are just mud so when it rains they collapse. They stay underground for long, long shifts without proper protection, they mix the toxic mercury with dust with their bare hands and then burn off the mercury in the open. It is dangerous, they earn less than a dollar a day and it is a modern scandal that these people are mining for a precious metal like gold. That is why we are as determined today to make Fairtrade work in gold as the pioneers were determined to bring their vision of Fairtrade coffee to reality.
- How do you think that British shoppers’ understanding of Fairtrade has improved over the years? How could it be improved further?
In the early days we were forever being confused with the Government’s Office of Fair Trading, which was then responsible for protecting consumer interests in this country! Only die-hard ethical campaigners knew about Fairtrade, and everyone mumbled about poor quality. Now nine out of ten consumers in the UK recognise the Fairtrade Mark, and have a very top level understanding that it is about a fair deal for farmers and workers in developing countries.
The challenge now is to deepen people’s understanding. The danger is that people assume all problems are solved if a product is Fairtrade –that the farmers’ children skip happily to school and poverty is a distant memory. But of course the reality is dirty and complicated and always difficult and challenging. For example: Just as a producer group is becoming well established and doing well, they get hit by changing weather patterns causing productivity to collapse; mudslides or hurricanes destroy their farms; or diseases sweep the lands as with coffee rust in Central America today.
We need to help the public understand how long and slow and complex the process of change is – and that Fairtrade is in there, with our hands dirty, working to find solutions. But it is the work of decades and decades. And we feel that it is like unpeeling the layers of the onion: as we address one problem, such as the situation of smallholders, we have to move to the next level of problems such as how to empower women or help prevent child labour.
- With giants like Kit Kat signing up to Fairtrade, what do you think small brands like Liberation bring to the party?
Liberation and other dedicated Fairtrade brands are the heart and soul of Fairtrade. Being established and run to benefit the producers, they show that there is truly another way of doing business centred on ethics. Liberation’s structure – with the nut farming and gathering groups owning a large percentage of the company and being its biggest shareholder – must be the future. This means producers are at the heart of decisions being made, equal partners in the trade. My vision would be that in the end producer groups own shares of the global commodity giants too – and companies like Liberation show what is possible.
Liberation and other Fairtrade focussed brands like Divine Chocolate and Cafédirect are also inspiring for dedicated Fairtrade supporters, who don’t want to buy from the big boys, and are brilliant at campaigning with the public. Liberation of course also brings to the party delicious Fairtrade nutty snacks – something vital for any party!
- What would you most like to see Fairtrade achieve over the next 20 years?
How many answers am I allowed?! In 20 years, I hope that people in Brazil, India and South Africa will be able to buy Fairtrade products as easily as we can here in Europe. This will mean producers would no longer be so dependent on traditional trade routes and the Fairtrade message, of fairness for producers, will be heard and understood in their own countries.
So many producer groups are still struggling to sell a high enough proportion of what they grow on the Fairtrade market to make a true difference to the future of the farmers and their families. So we need to scale up Fairtrade sales so that we get past the tipping point and can impact the behaviour of all traders in a whole sector. Can we get sales of ethical coffee or bananas to over 30% of the global market? What would it take to do that? Can we increase sales of Fairtrade tea so that plantations in Malawi really can pay their workers a living wage? That would be revolutionary – and yet it is within our reach, if we really stretch out.
I know that communities across the world are inspired by the wonderful example set by campaigners and supporters all over the UK who have taken Fairtrade into their hearts. Their passion – and that of the farmers and workers – is what keeps re-igniting my passion for Fairtrade, despite all the daily difficulties of putting justice into trade.