Home > Guest Authors, Joe Turner > A black day for Fairtrade?

A black day for Fairtrade?

December 8th, 2009

Joe is a guest blogger – all the views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Fairtrade London Campaign.

In the battle for ethical trading, Monday 7 December will go down as Black Monday – the day when the Fairtrade Foundation finally lost all credibility. In the headlong rush to certify everything that moves the Fairtrade Foundation, Britain’s self-proclaimed guardian of all things Fairtrade, gave Nestlé the ethical pass it so desperately wanted. I shudder to even type the words: The Fairtrade Kit-Kat. Yes, that biscuit coated in the most sickly chocolate has finally burst through the winning tape. But only the four-fingered version, you’ll understand. The two-fingered version can continue being made by children and slaves in the Cote d’Ivorie. Four fingers good, two fingers bad. Though apparently they will also certify the two-fingered version. At some point in the undefined future.

The problem is not really that multinational brands are interested in the Fairtrade mark, because that is what it is for, in the sense that many consumers want the multinationals to improve their purchasing policy. The problem is when the brand behind the label is so notorious and when the act of certifying devalues all those smaller brands who will inevitably lose out against the world’s biggest food multinational. Brands, don’t forget, who were the originators of the Fairtrade concept.

Cocoa is an odd product. According to the charity Trading Visions in October of this year, the world price for cocoa hit a 24 year high of over $3000 per tonne which is almost twice the Fairtrade minimum of $1600 a tonne. Hence it is clearly not so difficult to pay the farmer exactly what you would pay him otherwise and still claim it is Fairtrade. A marvellous bit of double-speak.

The Cote d’Ivorie is said to produce more than 40% of the world cocoa crop with the farmers representing some of the most exploited people on the planet. Child slavery is rampant. Low wages are widespread. Using the Fairtrade system as a sticking plaster on one of the planet’s most notorious, most ruthless and most profitable multinationals is, quite simply, a disgrace.

To access the Fairtrade system, producers have to prove their ethics. They must be co-operatives and must meet rigorous standards. Standards that, strangely, do not apply to the multinationals. Co-operatives have to show they are whiter than white otherwise they can be assessed and have to withdraw from the system, excluding the very groups which started the process. Multinationals do not even have to show a commitment to Fairtrade.

Those multinationals can use Fairtrade as an ethical crutch – deceiving consumers to the extent of their ethical credentials whilst continuing with their ways with more than 90% of all the raw materials they buy. Nestle uses 370,000 tonnes of cocoa a year. The Fairtrade Kit-Kat deal represents 4,300 tonnes of cocoa. Just over 1% of Nestlé chocolate will be Fairtrade.

Nestlé are not doing it from the goodness of their heart. They are doing it because they think they can extract some positive feelings from people of goodwill and at the same time hoodwink us from the reality of the way they do business.

Acting as some kind of perverse PR machine for a succession of the world’s worst food multinationals, the Fairtrade Foundation seems to relish the challenge of persuading us that black is actually white. According to their Press Release on the Kit-kat decision, “The public will be cheering this groundbreaking move taking Fairtrade further into the mainstream”. Woo.hoo. Shame on Nestlé and shame on the Fairtrade Foundation.

Joe Turner

Joe Turner

Joe Turner is an activist and a maverick, seeking to think about and act upon issues to do with development, trade and justice. For five years, Joe ran a small clothing company struggling to work with manufacturers in the occupied West Bank, in the process learning about the cotton industry, Fairtrade, organic and other certification schemes. He is now interested to contemplate the post-Fairtrade landscape and the failings of the current system.

  • http://twitter.com/CarveConsulting Paul Harrison

    Very, very interesting position Joe – what is everyone else thinking about the Nestle / KitKat Fairtrade thing? #Fairtrade #FairtradeLondon

  • sally

    Interesting post here. A few questions:

    'But only the four-fingered version, you’ll understand. The two-fingered version can continue being made by children and slaves in the Cote d’Ivorie.' – should we sacrifice the 'benefits' to some because they are not available to everyone?

    'According to the charity Trading Visions in October of this year, the world price for cocoa hit a 24 year high of over $3000 per tonne which is almost twice the Fairtrade minimum of $1600 a tonne' – might part of the solution not come from reassessing the fair trade minimum price then?

  • http://twitter.com/gentlemandad JoeTurner

    sally – Joe here (excuse my random twitter name!)

    I think we have to think seriously about what it is we are trying to achieve. Are we actually saying that ANY benefit is better than what was there before and therefore to be applauded? These farmers usually have less than 3 ha farms and earn around $1600 per year for just over a tonne of cocoa each. Is the benefit accrued to them worth the publicity which Nestlé will use in their publicity? If you take the opinion that increasing fairtrade sales are good by default, as do the Foundation, you'll clearly loudly applaud this deal. But how much difference will it actually make to the farmers involved?

    In answer more directly to your first point, I think it is entirely legitimate to focus on a small group if you can force real and substantial changes to them which radiate out to others. In a circumstance where the market price is already much higher than the fairtrade minimum, there is little evidence of this.

    To your second, yes – clearly the minimum needs to be increased.

  • Sue Acton

    My company Bubble & Balm is 100% Fairtrade – one of only two beauty companies in the UK whose entire range is Fairtrade certified. However, i'm generally a big supporter of the mainstreaming of Fairtrade, even where large companies only switch some of their products. Being realistic, Boots (for example) offering a Fairtrade beauty range means far more producer benefit given the sheer volumes they deal in, even if its only for a relatively small number of products within their overall range.

    Mainstreaming was always going to be painful…because the minute a large company steps towards ethical sourcing (for whatever motivation) there is a tendency for people to pounce on them and say 'why can't you do more straight away'? It would be great, for example, if all Cadburys chocolate was Fairtrade rather than just Dairy Milk. But, being realistic, what would I prefer…that large companies wait until they can switch everything? No…because in the meantime producers lose out on immediate benefits. I believe the more products are switched, even on a product by product basis, the more mainstreaming we get, until eventually it becomes the 'norm' to be Fairtrade.

    All of this said, the recent Kit Kat announcement has made me revisit my thinking on this. The problem with product certification in isolation is that any company, in theory, could certify a product regardless of everything else they do (or don't do). Taking this to the extreme…what would happen if (say) the BNP wanted to launch a Fairtrade product? If the product met the criteria, would they get approval?

    All of which leads me to one conclusion…I don't think it's realistic or even desirable to expect companies to become 100% Fairtrade overnight, and I think it's fine that individual products from larger ranges are certified on their own. But, more and more i'm inclined to believe that the separation of product and company is a risk to the integrity of Fairtrade, and therefore that any company that wants to certify a product should also have to meet some generic minimum standards about their entire business as a pre-requisite to obtaining individual product approval. I'm not talking about company certification, but about a minimum company standard that must be reached as part of product certification – it would still be the products that are certified.

    Thoughts?

  • sally

    I agree yes, my second point is inextricably linked to the first that I make. As you say where Nestle are certifiying KitKats fair trade and paying the same price they were before this may be cause for concern. However, there is the scoial premium to be considered too which Nestle will pay on top of the minimum price (which I think we agree is an issue in cocoa and perhaps other commodities).

    I'm not quite clear in my own mind about the pro's and con's of this arrangement but in principle I do believe that any benefit is better than none. It may not be the perfect benefit and I agree it should not be to the detriment of companies more 'in tune' with fair trade values but can fair trade grow and develop without mainstreaming? (I don't have the answer to this so comments welcome).

  • Name

    I hate Nestle and all, but this isn't so new. Their Nescafe coffee is already certified fair trade. The more products the better I would have thought.

    Yes, cocoa prices are high, but they won't always be. Will Nestle keep the fairtrade badge when prices drop? And keep paying higher than market value prices? If so, the producers will be benefitting in exactly the way that fairtrade was invented for.

    Your main point seems to be that it devalues the fairtrade mark on products made by small companies and co-operatives. Fair enough, but what's better, to keep it as a niche thing or to try to convert the entire marketplace? Do we care more about the small ethical manufacturers or the people who actually grow the cocoa?

    I for one, will not be being buying Nestle products, fairtrade or not. I think most ethical people won't be persuaded by this. But plenty of people will buy a kitkat anyway, and now at least it is fair trade.

  • http://twitter.com/BexLondonTown Bex Clarke

    Well, it's great to see such a worthwhile debate on the new London site. I very much enjoyed reading this guest blog post. I do generally agree that it seems very unwise for The Fairtrade Foundation to certify the four finger favourite from such a company!
    Although this is not really the point, why only the four finger?

  • jdurai

    It's not just four finger – it's the whole Kit Kat range in UK and Ireland. The four-finger bars (both the milk and dark chocolate versions) will be the first to carry the FAIRTRADE Mark in January 2010, but the rest of the range will follow (as quickly as Nestle can secure the right volume and quality of Fairtrade certified cocoa into the supply chain from Cote d'Ivoire).

    Sales of Fairtrade cocoa from Cote d'Ivoire will initially more than double as a result of the four-finger switch alone. As the rest of the range is converted, more cocoa farmers will be able to sell under Fairtrade terms (most Fairtrade-certfied cooperatives in Cote d'Ivoire have not been able to sell their cocoa under Fairtrade terms til now).

  • Joel Turnip

    This article's all a bit overly dramatic, no? Black Monday? Shuddering to type? I suppose if your own business ventures have failed in the sphere of eco-commerse, you're more likely to hold bitterness towards a company that starts to get it right…

    It's hard to get past the first paragraph of this dribble, as it's clear the Kit Kat announcement's not been fully read or understood. Nestle will be rolling out Fairtrade certification across the full range of its Kit Kat brand in due course. You have to do these things one step at a time and can't magically click your fingers and have all the Fairtrade produce required as and when, nor can you really confirm dates as to when things might happen. We live in a world of beurocracy you see.

    Regardless of Nestle's past and other activities, there's no denying the fact that this announcement and move holds significant benefits for farmers in the Ivory Coast, one of the poorest places on Earth. Would you rather Kit Kat not going Fairtrade and the farmers continuing to get a raw deal? Something is better than nothing and everybody's entitled to change their ways and try and improve upon their past actions, or perhaps I've got it wrong and you're right that once unethical, you're only meant be so forever more and not re-evaluate your behavour….

    Kit Kat going Fairtrade means that the Fairtrade logo will be seen millions of times a minute and significantly strengthen awareness of Fairtrade in the public's conscience. That can only be a good thing. Sometimes you have to dance with the beast to step on its toes and trip it up.

    The Fairtrade logo on Kit Kats does not mean the Fairtrade Foundation agrees with or endorses Nestle's overal business activities. It merely means that that particular product has received Fairtrade certification and met very stringent requirements.