Georgia Lenihan-Geels on the need for (even) fairer trade

Food is a pretty hot topic in the media these days. Fairtrade, animal ethics, healthy eating and sustainability are all familiar concepts and have gotten a lot of us thinking about what we put in our mouths.

Since I was about 18 years old, I have also become increasingly interested in where my food and food products come from. How were they made? Where were they made? Who and what were involved in the process? Fairtrade products are available in most, if not all, food stores and the label often attached to products like cocoa, chocolate, coffee, bananas, sugar and tea. Although there is no real clear-cut definition of what makes something fairtrade, it’s a term generally applied to food products or ingredients cultivated or developed within certain guidelines that aim to support producers and look after our natural environments. This includes protecting workers’ rights, ensuring decent wages and providing safe working conditions. One of the best-known organisations, Fairtrade International, is also trying to increase the role that farmers and workers play in the trade of their goods, aiming to give them a central voice in decision-making and more control of their businesses.

By buying fairtrade, consumers are making a conscious choice to support food items produced free of worker exploitation and unfair wages. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of speculation recently about the authenticity of fairtrade labels. By giving consumers false impressions about how fairly produced items really are, misleading labels essentially do the opposite of what they are supposed to: protect the producers.

Bananas are one of the food products most likely to come with a fairtrade option at the supermarket. Located in the heart of the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic is home to a large proportion of the world’s banana plantations. This includes fairtrade, organic fields as well as regular banana fields. However, even on the so-called fairtrade plantations, there are poor working conditions, poverty and malnutrition. A lot of these workers fled from Haiti post-earthquake in search of a better life and opportunities for work. Most of them live without basic necessities like clean water and electricity. They work long hours and earn just enough money for a single daily meal. Despite all this, the bananas produced in some of these plantations are certified ‘fairtrade’ by the Fairtrade Foundation, meaning consumers are oblivious to the real state of the working environments they are supporting.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London has just finished a 4-year research project, looking at tea, flower and coffee plantations in Uganda and Ethiopa. The results, recently published by the university, included in-depth investigation into the workers’ wages and working conditions at rural farms and factories. In some cases, workers at non-fairtrade operations had better working conditions in comparison to those at the Fairtrade International farms, as well as better wages.

The problem seems to be that the premium gained from selling fairtrade products is directed to the wrong areas. For example, SOAS found that, although the premium was able to fund better facilities like working toilets and new housing, the poorest and most-in-need individuals were the ones missing out. Similar examples can also be found in the coffee industry in countries like Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The fact that premiums are directed to farmers and landowners means that the actual field workers are still easily subjected to poor wages. Clearly, this suggests a flaw in the design of fairtrade organisations.

As consumers, what is our role in determining the development of ‘fairer’ trade? Simply looking for fairtrade stickers on food products is obviously not enough to support the workers; perhaps we should take more responsibility. Putting more effort into researching the products at our local supermarket or grocery store can go a long way to ensuring we aren’t inadvertently encouraging worker exploitation. Ultimately, the lack of trust in fairtrade labels is a major issue. The marketing of such organisations suggests not only that they are reducing poverty and exploitation, but that they are recovering worker rights and improving lives at the level of workers and producers – and as I’ve explained above, this isn’t always the case. The lack of unification here is worrying and leaves us as consumers at a loss.

Georgia Lenihan-Geels was born in Wellington, New Zealand and grew up in Vanuatu, Switzerland and China. She has been studying Biomedical Science since 2007 and is currently doing her Masters in Molecular Nutrition at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.