To me, the greatest thing that Fair Trade can achieve, is to bridge the gap between the wealthy West and the poorer South. Poorer countries are excluded from western markets by excessively high tariffs (and it’s the cuddly EU as much as the nasty Mr Trump, that is responsible for this). Tariffs on raw materials are significantly less than tariffs on finished goods and this continues to stunt the development of poorer countries, leaving them both at the mercy of world commodity prices and unable to add value to their own raw materials.
While organisations such as the Fairtrade Foundation have stabilised and improved upon the commodity prices that growers achieve, they have never addressed the next stage, which is to move away from a reliance on raw material production.
While Fair Trade coffee is both huge and mainstream, it will surprise most that ‘Good African’ coffee was the first African coffee being owned, roasted and packed in Africa (Uganda) and exported to the UK as a finished product – available in Waitrose in 2005 and more recently in Tesco in 2012, unfortunately it is no longer available. Ironically, while the business was an ethical one, it did not have Fairtrade accreditation. It is a shame that Café Direct, the leading Fairtrade coffee producer in the UK, have recently set up a roasting facility in this country, missing a real opportunity to redress the balance in their producing nations.
The same is true for cotton where Fairtrade accreditation often ends with the production of the raw material, with value being added in the West. I recently saw a textile product on an ethical site, stating that it had been produced in fair working conditions in the EU. Fair Trade should address the challenge, not run away from it.
I set up my bedding company (Their Story) to address what I saw as some of the gaps within the Fair Trade, ethical and/or organic market. For me, organic cotton was not enough, a fair price to the farmer was not enough, I wanted to see finished products being made in India under fair and progressive working conditions. To achieve all of these things for what is also hand printed on 300 thread count 100% cotton sateen is very expensive and a great risk. When added to this, the import duty added to such finished goods, I was taking a very big risk indeed.
Luxury items that are ethical, are a niche within a niche. While people seem to be happy to pay top dollar for high fashion branding made in sweatshops, what they are prepared to pay for handmade high quality with a combination of holistic ethics (organic, fair trade, fair working conditions, environmentally friendly) is still largely uncharted territory.
For me, things are moving slowly, but in the right direction, but I believe that within the ethical trading community we need to be at the forefront of creating equality and driving forward progress through our trade.
Cormac McCarthy is the founder of Their Story www.theirstory.co.uk