Fairtrade supporters conference 2010

I attended an energetic and enjoyable Fairtrade supporters conference put on by the Fairtrade Foundation on Saturday.

It felt to me like it had really built on the success of last year's conference, with more reflection and honesty about difficult issues, and lots of useful information being shared.

Most of all, it's great to have so many of the brilliant campaigners from around the Fairtrade movement gathered together in one place.

I enjoyed the contrast of watching Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, and Andrew Ethuru, a Kenyan producer director of Cafédirect, speak one after the other in the plenary session.

Caroline talks very quickly, her words tumbling out passionately and eloquently, as she drew our attention to the big picture, the need to shift from a world based on relentless economic growth, to one that increases human well being.

She highlighted the fact that although DFID's overall budget isn't being cut, big changes are being made, for example big cuts in funding for development awareness, and for policy work, in other words less focus on tackling underlying causes.

Andrew Ethuru on the other hand spoke with a more measured pace, taking his time, and building up gradually to an impassioned conclusion. Andrew is chairman of the Michimikuru tea co-operative's Fairtrade Premium committee in Kenya, their tea goes into Cafédirect's 'Everyday Tea' range.

Andrew spoke of the challenge now for Michimukuru, which is that even as overall sales of Fairtrade tea are growing, Michimikuru’s Fairtrade sales are declining. His warning was that market share for small producers is shrinking as multinationals with big tea estates move into mass market Fairtrade tea.

"The question we have to ask ourselves is," he said, "has Fairtrade been hijacked, because there is big money there?"

He asserted that at the heart of Fairtrade should be small producers, small farms, and labour-intensive high-quality production.

Later on after lunch, we had a speech from Alan Duncan MP, the minister of state for international development. He came out with a rousing defence of Fairtrade from a right-wing, business perspective. What he said is worth reproducing here as he said it rather well:

I've had 20 years in international business, and I'd like to think that you cannot pull the wool over my eyes. And I've sensed that some people just remain a little bit sceptical about the real, practical justification for the whole Fairtrade concept. So let them hear it from me today ... don't scoff at Fairtrade.

Those who sneer at Fairtrade and think it's some sort of soppy, do-gooding, trendy, left-wing notion are completely wrong. It is a robust economic model which delivers direct benefits to some of the world's poorest people. It injects fairness and sensible economics into business communities in poor countries. And it rewards hard work and quality produce, with a fair price. And everyone should support it.

- Alan Duncan MP

In the afternoon, there was an excellent panel discussion on Fairtrade cotton, which went into lots of detail about the complexities, setbacks and potential of this important Fairtrade commodity.

There was an interesting reflection on the right price for Fairtrade cotton garments, the feeling was that the Fairtrade Mark works better on high quality rather than cheap end garments, as a 50p price premium, say, is a lot on a £5 t-shirt compared with a £30 t-shirt.

But Fairtrade cotton can still work for mass market big factory production as well as for small craft garment production.

It seems that FLO is very slowly making progress on achieving better standards all the way along the cotton supply chain, not just at the farm level, which is good news.

It was good to be reminded, as one of the panellists did, that: "There is no such thing as cheap clothes - someone, somewhere has paid the cost."

You can watch videos and read transcripts from the day at the Fairtrade Foundation website.