What's fair about design?

With Fairtrade fortnight underway, Annie Deakin reveals interior design with a conscience
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The Independent Online

There’s more to Fairtrade than bananas, beards and coffee beans. It is trickling into every market sector, including the interior design industry. With Fairtrade Fortnight (23 February - 8 March) upon us, ethical trading is this month's hot topic.

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The holier than thou principles of Oxfam and Church Halls has hit the high street with Laura Ashley and John Lewis jumping on the bandwagon. Buying Fairtrade cotton bedding and bath linen is now as commonplace as snuffling out Fairtrade chocolate in supermarkets.

As worthy as it is, can the masses afford to buy Fairtrade in this sluggish economy? Apparently so. Recent research from the Fairtrade Foundation shows that despite the financial gloom, 92 per cent of shoppers still say they are prepared to pay extra for a product considered ethical. It's cheering stuff, especially because the majority of consumers chose Fairtrade as the preferred kind of ethical merchandise. Be it a bunch of roses or a Berber rug, buying something labelled Fairtrade is a promise that nobody was exploited unfairly in its creation. Such a guarantee may cost extra but stats show we’re willing to pay more for this reassurance.

While London investment bankers are fighting for lavish bonuses, two billion people still survive on under $2 a day. Less than my morning Starbucks addiction, it's hard to fathom the figures. Just as we sent children up chimneys in Victorian England, developing countries still exploit infants in flower farms and carpet sweatshops so that we have beautiful furnishings at home. We need to question low-priced home furnishings and throwaway fashion.

As Sir Stuart Rose, Chief Executive for Marks & Spencer highlighted, the business maths of dirt-cheap products doesn’t add up. "How can you sell a T-shirt for £2 and pay the rents and pay the rates and pay the buyer and pay the poor boy or girl who is making it a living wage? You can't. I don't care what anyone says about margin structure, about the efficiency of the business, or about a low-cost business. Frankly it is a shame on us all in this country that we don't take a stronger view on the issue of ethical trading."

Marks & Spencer has long been ahead of its high street competitors when it comes to taking an ethical lead. Their worthy five-year plan is to re-engineer the brand to become a carbon neutral, zero-waste-to-landfill, ethical trading, sustainable-sourcing, health-promoting and Fairtrade-supporting business. Their eco-friendly Fern Collection of sofas and armchairs are the ultimate in worthy design. Upholstered in Fairtrade-certified cotton, the sofa frames are created from sustainable timber, plastic drinks bottles (122 for every two-seater-sofa), Ecoflex foam and fiber from 80 per cent post-consumer waste.

Rose has said of Marks & Spencer, "I tell you one thing - I know which camp I would rather be in and I can sleep straight in bed at night. We are not perfect but you can go to any factory that we deal with at any time and be sure that we have worked hard to uphold the highest ethical standards."

While officially labelled Fairtrade sofas are still hard to come by, sustainable, Fairtrade and organic flowers are blooming in popularity. The process of growing flowers is labour-intensive which shouts trouble for vulnerable workers. Last week, Amnesty International pleaded with Canadian parliamentarians to think twice about buying carnations from Columbia where children, as young as ten, toil the flower farms.

Roses have many thorns but those grown at Oserian Farm, in Kenya, can be bought with a clear conscience. Oserian, the country’s prime exporter of fresh-cut flowers, supplies John Lewis, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitress. For the ultimate gift, pick the Fairtrade Frosted Fair from John Lewis. It is a charming Fairtrade certified bouquet of statice, lisianthus, carnations, creamy roses and gypsophila. Located next to Lake Naivasha, Oserian farmers are not solely interested in growing healthy flowers. As part of their Fairtrade promise, they provide healthcare, housing and education to the farmers’ families.

Nobody - bar Oliver Twist Fagan-types - would willingly display furniture or flowers produced by child labor. And yet, the booming rug and carpet market still relies on illegal child labor in the Far East. To ensure your rugs have a clean history, look for the RugMark label imprinted on products sold at Laura Ashley, Dwell and Debenhams.

An international non-profit organization, RugMark aims to eliminate child and adult slave labour from the South Asian carpet industry within the next decade. Available at the mydeco.com design boutique, Barbara Anne Cooper's limited edition malachite silk wall hanging is hand knotted in Nepal to RugMark standards. Handmade in India, the Fairtrade-certified Aria floral rug, exclusive to B&Q, shows how cost, style and ethical standards can work together.

Being associated with child and slave labour is never cool. When a mug of Fairtrade-certified coffee is sold, we know the farmers of the coffee beans get a guaranteed price and good working conditions. With sofas, flowers and rugs stamped similarly, Fairtrade is beginning to go bananas for interior design.

Annie Deakin is Editor of mydeco.com