Sunday 6 March 2011

Fairtrade Fortnight

This is Fairtrade Fortnight and as usual there are a number of events in Aberfeldy to promote Fairtrade. I will be doing a workshop in one of the local primary schools on chocolate and the story of how chocolate is grown and transformed from bean to bar. This is a fascinating story and has a fascinating history and eager to learn more I have been reading a book by Orla Ryan called ‘Chocolate nations’. She explores the cocoa industry in west Africa and its relation to recent history in a number of W Africa countries – Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and others. She also looks at issues of slavery and Fairtrade. I am only half way through the book, and have in turns been depressed (do I really want to be part of an industry so exploitative and so open to corruption?) and inspired (most cocoa is grown on small farms not huge plantations, some of the vision of the leaders of newly independent states in West Africa that cocoa could fuel freedom and democracy).

I must confess that I am only half way through the book, but already Ms Ryan is a little dismissive of Fairtrade – she seems to be saying that whilst intentionally good, she is not sure it is really making that much difference. I haven’t yet read enough to know her conclusions and how she would propose to improve the system to make cocoa farming profitable and attractive for West African farmers (after all – we don’t want the supply of cocoa beans to dry up!). But as I read ‘Fairtrade doesn’t really work’, the often heard refrains that follow such a conclusion – ‘therefore it a rip off’, ‘not worth bothering with’, ‘makes no difference’ – come to mind. An interesting observation in her book is that farmers sell their cocoa beans to a range of buyers and not only Fairtrade coops, like Kuapa Kokoo; as the prices offered change. To me that is not evidence that Fairtrade is not working – but that at least there is a coop owned and run by farmers that offers a good and fair price. Farmers have a real choice then and this I would have thought must be good.

The reason I support Fairtrade is because I know no other way to ‘trust’ supply lines. As I am unable to go to West Africa, negotiate with individual cocoa farmers and agree a fair price and then make the cocoa beans into chocolate – I need to trust that others are doing this for me in a way that is transparent and ethical. I would dearly love to be able to do this more directly and look with envy at chocolate makers that describe on their websites their connections to cocoa farms. I know I need to devote more time to sourcing chocolates that I believe are ensuring cocoa farmers where ever they are able to use cocoa to better their lives

The critics of Fairtrade also tend to come from the mainstream companies involved in the sale or production of the commodity; I cannot help but feel that their criticism is based on the fact that they are not prepared to consider that their current model of managing isn’t producing beneficial social or environmental outcomes. Fairtrade is not perfect – but reading Orla Ryan’s book, the cocoa marketing boards, the middle men, the international commodity markets that play poker with commodity prices without a care for the producers themselves – this isn’t working either.

I am always intrigued by the websites of chocolate makers that make the claim that work to the highest ethical standards, have concluded that Fairtrade is not good enough and then claim that they source their chocolate from a ‘lovely man they know in Ecuador’ – but don’t tell us who that lovely man is or what part of Ecuador or how they know that he treats his workers well. They seem to have missed one of the basic concepts of Fairtrade which is that to be sure good practice is happening – supply lines are monitored, made transparent and in the public domain.

I have spent the afternoon trying to research this on the internet – looking at chocolate manufactures websites, at chocolate makers websites, at the Fairtrade Foundations website, at chocolate lovers blogs – and feel more confused than ever! My conclusion is that at all I can do is strive to seek out more information, to find a wider range of chocolates that I can be confident are ethically sourced, strive to be as clear in my own communication to customers as I can be.

Back to Ms Ryan’s book and looking forward to finding out what she proposes to make the cocoa industry work more effectively for West Africa…