Harriet Lamb: Fairtrade puts people back at the heart of trade

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The Independent Online

Fairtrade does what it says on the tin: it is about better prices for smallholder farmers and workers in developing countries. Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which too often leaves the poorest, weakest producers earning less than it costs them to grow their crops. It's a bit like a national minimum wage for global trade. Not perfect, not a magic want, not a panacea for all the problems of poverty, but a step in the right direction.

Free-market economists complain that Fairtrade benefits only a small number of farmers, penalising those outside. This is plain wrong. In fact, the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. Research in Bolivia, for example, found that coffee producers outside Fairtrade were able to negotiate higher prices: Fairtrade had become a price setter. Fairtrade farmers also share their knowledge in trading. For those inside the system, our research shows that through the minimum price guarantee, farmers have more secure and stable incomes. A group of rice farmers in India invested their premium in buying a tractor and a land leveller; productivity increased by 30 per cent.

Other critics ask why we are working with retailers or big brands like Cadbury's and Starbucks. Our answer is that only by mainstreaming Fairtrade will we be able to reach more producers. So we are unapologetic in our commitment to scale up. By doing so, moreover, we begin to affect all business behaviour.

A favourite question is why don't we work with UK farmers. We recognise that many farmers in the UK face similar issues to farmers elsewhere, but Fairtrade was established specifically to support the most disadvantaged producers in the world – like the tea-growers of Malawi, who don't even have drinking water in their villages. I always buy my cheese, pears and carrots from my local farmers' market – and enjoy Fairtrade bananas, tea and coffee. It's two sides of the same movement to put people back at the heart of trade. Surely you cannot say fairer than that.

Harriet Lamb is from the Fairtrade Foundation