Fairtrade supporters conference

It was the Fairtrade Supporters Conference in London today, one of the best Fairtrade Foundation conferences I've attended.

I would have liked to have seen more reflection about the future of Fairtrade campaigning in the UK. This sort of conference could be the space for genuine consultation and strategic debate about the direction of the Fairtrade movement. As it is, they are always rather top-down in approach and tend to take the campaigners for granted, treating them as a resource to be deployed rather than as co-creators in a shared endeavour.

Nevertheless, the conference still did a great job making us feel part of a campaigning community, stoking up enthusiasm and sharing useful information. It was good to hear about DFID's £12m of new investment in Fairtrade, aiming to bring another million producers into the system. Harriet Lamb described how costly and time consuming it can be to bring new producers or commodities into the system, using the example of Zaytoun olive oil from Palestine which took over five years to certify Fairtrade. For all the success of Fairtrade, it still requires substantial external investments to scale up and deepen its impact.

The final panel discussion of the day - "what role does fairness play in sustainable consumption" - was particularly interesting.

The panellists reflected on the difficult issue of selling Fairtrade to people living in poverty in the UK: a question to which there are no easy answers. What is clear is that driving down the prices paid to developing world farmers to produce artificially cheap food is not a fair solution to the complex problem of food poverty in the UK.

Sophi Tranchell of Divine Chocolate and Renwick Rose of the Windward Islands Farmers' Association spoke of the need to stay one step ahead of the multinationals coming on board the Fairtrade system. Of course the big mainstream companies will use the Fairtrade mark for their own advantage, that is as we should expect. The important thing is ensure that the pioneer companies that are truly committed to investing in the future of Fairtrade survive as well.

Ann Pettifor spoke of the need for Fairtrade to be situated in a context where developing countries are able to prioritise food security and broad-based sustainable economies over the narrow export-driven growth model of development fostered on so many of them by the World Bank and the IMF over the last three decades. She read a lovely quote from John Maynard Keynes back in 1933: "Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel--these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily national."

Finally, there was a proposal from one member of the audience that buying Fairtrade could inhibit people from taking more radical action, that the feelgood factor a Fairtrade purchase engenders could absolve individuals of any further responsibility to make the world a better place. Joe Human from Keswick stood up and made a memorable response. Unfortunately I didn't write it down so I can only loosely paraphrase, but it went something like this: Fairtrade transforms people gradually. It is a habit that grows, four or five years down the line, into activism. It doesn't just change your shopping habits, it changes the way you relate to the world.


Hi Tom,

I enjoyed your reflections on the Fairtrade Supporters Conference! You give a really balanced and informative view of what the issues were and what the feeling was (a big improvement on some hyped up self promotional posts by others).

It was interesting to hear about the cost of introducing new producers to fairtrade which has been an issues in recent report which suggest it is very difficult for newbies to get into the 'fairtrade - system'

It was also interesting to hear your comments about ethical consumerism. There is some credibility to the idea of changing your habits as the first step in changing your values...Very Buddhist! There was a great article on this topic in the New York Times yesterday (Boycotts Minus the Pain: http://bit.ly/13sMe0). The article raises some new points in what is becoming a much larger debate about the future direction of fair trade!

Thanks again for doing such a good job of sharing!


Hi Tom

Glad to hear you enjoyed the conference on Saturday. We at the Foundation think it was the best ever too.

But you must have missed the consultation - there were people there all day trying to get feedback on what supporters thought the future of Fairtrade campaigning might be. There was the opportunity to feedback through graffiti walls, questionnaires and in the surgery session entitled 'Have your say in the future of Fairtrade campaigning'.

It is tricky to balance that kind of consultation into the plenary sessions, as there are lots of people there new to Fairtrade who are looking for something different from the day.

I can assure you that we certainly don't take campaigners for granted.

Good to get your feedback though.


Hi Scott,

I do find myself thinking about ethical consumerism a lot. There was another good quote from Sophi Tranchell at the conference, something like: "everything you choose to buy makes the world the way it is". I liked it because she mentioned "that includes your pensions and mortgages", and because it was an inspiring Ghandian perspective on the importance of means over ends. If you make sure each act you do everyday is good, then good ends will follow from them.

There's a good body of evidence supporting the idea that changed habits lead to changed values. The body of social and behavioural research drawn on by campaign strategists like Chris Rose shows that stated opinions and values are a less reliable guide to what people will do than their existing behaviours, which reflect their unconscious values. So focusing on changing behaviours rather than opinions makes strategic sense. Once we change our behaviours, we then justify ourselves by adapting our relevant opinions to suit it!

Hi Veronica,

I did get involved in the Future of Fairtrade Towns consultation on the day: it was managed in an interesting way and looked very promising. I look forwards to seeing what comes out of it. I did miss that surgery session though, so apologies if I have misrepresented the day here to some degree.

I would like to see more of that sort of strategic engagement between the Foundation and campaigners, all year round. Plus, the governance structures and information flows around local Fairtrade campaigns are worth reviewing occasionally, to ensure they are still engaging campaigners as the broader political and economic context of Fairtrade keeps changing.

I would have liked to have seen more reflection about the future of Fair trade.