This week we have heard some of the most controversial news in the Fairtrade world for a long time: Nestlé’s four-finger Kit Kat bars will bear the FAIRTRADE Mark from January 2010. This news has instantly stirred up a long-running debate about whether and under what circumstances large multinational corporations that have dubious business practices should be allowed to take part in the Fairtrade system.
It is important to look both at the pros and cons of this news about Nestlé and Kit Kat, to better understand whether it is something that Fairtrade supporters should be celebrating or condemning.
Firstly, what are the facts? Nestlé has decided use Fairtrade cocoa and sugar in its four finger Kit Kat bars, and the Fairtrade Foundation has authorised the use of the FAIRTRADE Mark on the bars. The change affects only the four finger bars, not two finger Kit Kats or any other Nestlé products, and it will also only apply to the UK and Ireland.
Nestlé has stated that they hope to make the rest of their Kit Kat bars, as well as other products, Fairtrade within the next few years, subject to availability of high-quality Fairtrade cocoa. However, they also made similar promises about their Fairtrade coffee after creating the Partner’s Blend which were never followed up on.
The move to certify Kit Kat bars has some very clear benefits. The change will affect more than 8,000 cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire, an undeniably poor country where producers depend heavily on the cocoa crop. The Fairtrade sales to Nestlé will bring in an extra $150 a tonne, 4 per cent above the $3,384 world price. This extra is the Fairtrade premium, which producer cooperatives will use to help support their communities however they choose – literacy and access to schools is a major issue in the areas of Côte d’Ivoire that will take part. In addition, the farmers will be guaranteed a good price even if the world price falls, as well as gaining long-term contracts and access to loans that help keep incomes and life more stable. Sugar producers in Belize will also get the same benefits.
It seems clear that for producers, on an individual and community level, there will be real benefits. The change will also raise the profile of Fairtrade in general, and hopefully inspire more companies to take part. This is part of the Fairtrade Foundation’s strategy of “Tipping the balance,” aiming at making trade work for the majority of producers around the world. Only with significant increases in Fairtrade sales (and/or major changes to global trade policy), will trade move from benefitting the few, to having a genuinely positive impact on the majority.
The Cons – Nestlé
However, there are also a lot of negative aspects of this change, and critics of the decision have some compelling arguments. There are many concerns specific to Nestlé as a corporation, including a very problematic history of using child labourers, and marketing baby milk products to families in the developing world and thus supplanting the practice of breastfeeding, which has led to health problems and even death for babies. Many people boycott Nestlé’s products, some of whom are now wondering whether they should agree to buy Fairtrade certified Kit Kats. For many, it is hard to see how certifying a small fraction of its cocoa as Fairtrade can in any way change people’s opinions of a company that continues to take part in disreputable practices throughout the rest of its business.
The Cons – Mainstreaming Fairtrade
These concerns bring up the larger question of whether Fairtrade ought to work with “mainstream” corporations that do not uphold all the values Fairtrade stands for. When you buy cocoa that was farmed according to Fairtrade standards, but ship, process, and market it in using exploitative or unsustainable practices, doesn’t that diminish the meaning of the FAIRTRADE Mark? Some companies (include companies like Divine Chocolate and Cafédirect) embody Fairtrade values in all their practices, and many people think Fairtrade should really only include companies like these, or press less committed corporations to uphold the highest standard of business ethics.
Your views on this matter will depend on what you think Fairtrade ultimately should be. Should it be the ideal model of fair trade and justice, working only with companies that meet this standard? Or should it be a step in the right direction that has some real benefits for the poor, working with imperfect corporations because of the positive impact on producers?
What the FAIRTRADE Mark Means
It is worth remembering that the FAIRTRADE Mark as it stands is simply a guarantee about how something was made at the producer level. It doesn’t pass judgement on a company as a whole, or make any statements about wider business practices. And if it did, it would be a whole different kettle of fish, one that would be more complicated, more expensive to take part in, and quite possibly off putting to most mainstream corporations. Some may see a more extensive set of criteria as a better way – but we should remember that the Mark doesn’t promote a whole corporation.
The Role of Campaigners
In the end, perhaps the way forward is for Fairtrade supporters and campaigners to pledge that, no matter what products and companies carry the FAIRTRADE Mark, our role should always be to press for more. As long as expectations continue to rise, we can celebrate the current benefits of Fairtrade for producers, while those who want to see Fairtrade mean even more can continue working to expand its meaning and role. Our efforts in London can then not only support positive steps, but be part of a continuous push for Fairtrade to have the best possible impacts on producers and on wider global business practices.
This post is part of a larger discussion about mainstreaming Fairtrade, hosted by Shared Interest. Click here to read more.