Can the Co-op afford to do more on Fair Trade?
An interesting, challenging and depressing article in the Guardian this week reports on trouble at the top of the Co-operative Group. An argument has broken out between activists in the movement keen to see the Co-op take a proactive role in promoting Fairtrade, and the board, who argue that going too far will make the group unprofitable.
It's an old argument but one that seems particularly relevant in the run up to the UK General Election where we've seen a race to occupy the centre ground. Should the Co-op be driven by market forces, or should it be attempting to forge its own path through choppy economic waters? You might be unsurprised to read that I think the Co-op should take the bolder route on Fairtrade, but I also believe there are strong financial reasons for doing so.
Fundamentally, I believe that consumers respond to fairness. We've seen this in the way that the Fairtrade mark has established itself as one of the most widely recognised consumer labels, but I believe it goes deeper than that. I think there is actually a gap in the market for a supermarket to take a stand and say "We are charging a fair price for this product - will you support us?" And this doesn't have to be something that benefits only traditional Fairtrade markets like chocolate, coffee or bananas. For example, there are attempts to make the milk industry fairer, as opposed to the situation at the moment where dairy farmers are earning a pittance.
I believe that if the Co-operative took a stronger stand on this fundamental issue of fairness they could actually attract more customers. Of course some buyers will base their decisions purely on price, and that's their prerogative. But I hope and believe there would be enough conscious consumers to support a business based on fairness rather than profit - indeed, up until now, I've always though that the Co-op was that business. Let's hope the present board doesn't sacrifice their decades-old principles for short term gain.