Our thoughts on today’s Observer article – Sunday 25th May 2014
The recent SOAS study, as reported in The Observer today, was a disappointing read for all of us committed to the concept of fair trade and improving people’s lives through our spending habits. The four year study found that workers at Fairtrade coffee, tea and flower plantations in Ethiopia and Uganda were seeing few benefits – often wages were better in larger, commercial operations. Some of the cited examples are extremely concerning: where the Fairtrade premium has been used to build toilets, but these are only accessible by senior managers not general workers, and where children have been working from the age of 10, rather than attending school.
We have every faith that the Fairtrade Foundation will address these issues and ensure that their auditing process is robust, and that we can continue to trust their brand. Perhaps the huge increase of Fairtrade demand over recent years has impacted on quality control. Back in 2002, £23.1 million of UK retail sales of coffee were Fairtrade, whereas in 2012 this had increased to £192.4 million, and a quarter of all roast and ground retail coffee in the UK is now Fairtrade certified.
The products we sell at Eighteen Rabbit are not subject to Fairtrade certification. We don’t sell agricultural commodities, and there is no auditing process for artisan-made produce at present. We want to assure our customers that a purchase from us will really transform the lives of workers, and we have every confidence in our supply chain - that those at every point are fairly paid for their work, have access to safe working environments, opportunities to develop their businesses, and ensure a sustainable future for their families.
Take our clothing from Mata Traders for example. The team at Mata in Chicago design the clothes and spend time with the workers in India and Nepal to develop the range. They know the workers by name and visit them in their work environments, and have built up a trusting and fair relationship. All this is possible at this relatively small scale, and similarly Eighteen Rabbit, as buyers of the stock, can spend time investigating and asking questions about the supply chain. We believe it’s important to support companies such as Mata, who are challenging the cheap clothes mentality – see the recent Fashion Revolution project for more about this. Similarly, our homeware from producers in Thailand and Vietnam, our toys from Bangladesh, and our T-shirts made in India, are all produced by small, caring organisations, and we scrutinise their approaches and policies.
Our vision for the future is for a world without fair trade – where coffee growers in a non-Fairtrade certified plantation are paid as well as the Fairtrade one next door. To make that a reality we need to support the Fairtrade Foundation as they work to improve their systems, but also ask questions and challenge our supermarkets, suppliers and shops to make sure that fair really means fair. The worst possible outcome would be for people to think that Fairtrade wasn’t something worth supporting. We hope you agree that a fairer world is good news for all of us.