TRADE has always been a hot topic in discussions about the developing world. Do we need more free trade, or is the WTO brand of free trade just a way to keep colonial trade patterns alive? Fair trade is an attempt to look beyond protectionism vs. laissez fair capitalism and creating a trade that is profitable but not exploitative. In order for consumers to know that the products they buy have been produced under dignified circumstances, NGO's have started labelling products that they know meet certain demands. Recently, various national labellings have been replaced with one international Fairtrade labelling.
When you enter Lund you are met by a sign saying that Lund is a Fairtrade City. Whereas fair trade coffee is a pretty straight forward concept, a fair trade city sounds more ambigious. I wanted to know more about it that, and went to Linda Scott Jacobsson, Fairtrade coordinator in Lund for an interview.
Fairtrade City is the Swedish version of Fairtrade Towns
- a status that can be given to municipalities by the national branches of the Fairtrade Labelling Organization if these municipalities meet a number of criterias -
- Citizens must be informed about fair trade,
- there must be a large selection of fair trade products available in the local stores
- and the municipality itself must consume a certain amount of fair trade products.
"The municipality must become an ethical consumer", as Linda says. The demands are set low, since the most important commitment a Fairtrade City makes is to gradually increase its consumption. Falling numbers can ultimately lead to a loss of the Fairtrade City status, but that is an unlikely scenario.
The reason to focus on the increasing consumption of fair trade products, rather than the absolute numbers, is a justified fear from the Fairtrade Foundation that interest will cool down with time. But couldn't it also be an incitament to do less rather than more - so that one always have improvements to do ahead? "Yes", says Linda, "but I know of no such case. One wouldn't do that". I hope she is right.
The municipality must also make sure that a sufficient amount of informational work and campaigning is done each year - failing here could also lead to losing of the Fairtrade City status. In Lund this is done through a steering group with representatives from all actors involved in the project. That means politicians, world shops, churches (some of which are applying for their own status as a Fairtrade place of worship) and supermarkets. Group members and activites vary from municpality to municipality. Linda underscored that Lund has an established tradition of fair trade work, a number of world shops have been active here since decades, and that the steering group therefore focuses on strategic work. A lot of campaigning is already done by voluntary forces, and the steering group is mostly a way to keep everyone informed about what is happening, and manage a few city-wide events like the World Fairtrade Day 8th of May.
To get a picture of the reality on the ground,
I went to ask Thibault le Minoux some questions.
Thibault is a French EVS volunteer at the ABC world shop in central Lund. He has been interested in fair trade and global justice for years, and picked this EVS project specifically to work with fair trade.
The shop mainly sells foodstuffs - coffe, tea and chocolates, but also handicraft, consmetics and jewellery. 80% of all products are labelled fairtrade, the rest are labelled as ecological products, or are produced within ABC's projects. Most products come form India and Nepal where ABC is active with projects for youth and children.
Coffe, tea and chocolate are export products that the developing world has been dependent on since the dawn of colonialism. But when I asked Thibault if they as a shop in any way try to diversify their range of products away from these products, the question was not really relevant. "All the money we get in in the shop go to our projects", explains Thibault. For the organization, selling fair trade products is rather a way of ethical fundraising, than a project itself.
What about being a world shop in a Fairtrade city?
Does Lund's status affect ABC's business? It couldn't be a bad thing, but the real effect on the shop's sales is hard to tell. Thibault points out that Lund has several world shops, and that there has long been a strong awareness about fair trade here. Possibly, Lund's new (since 2007) status has made something to make people even more aware.
And awareness is something the ABC shop needs, for sure. It is located inside a yard most people pass without noticing. This is biggest challange the world shop faces, according to Thibault. But they are doing quite well. Since 2007, the store has been staffed with 2 EVS volunteers continously. Thibault describes his work as interesting. He has mostly tasks in the shop, but look forward to get more involved in the projects in India.
That is Lund. Linda can tell us more about how it looks elsewhere. The criterias for Fairtrade City status are adjusted according to the size of the city. Interestingly,
the criterias vary between Sweden and other European countries.
No EU municipality is allowed to pledge to buy "Fairtrade-labelled goods", since this would be judged discriminatrory. In stead of the labelling, the pledge must focus on the product itself. International Fairtrade Towns pledge to increase their consumption of products that provide the producer with a minimal price and a social premium, which is also the criterias for a product to obtain Fairtrade labelling in the first place.
The Swedish Fairtrade Cities have only pledged to increase their consumption of products fullfilling the ILO's eight core criterias, safeguarding workers right to organize and collective bargaining while banning discrimination, child - and slave labour. These ILO conventions are basically the same that virtually all states have vowed to defend, and major businesses like H&M have promised to respect. But fulfilling that promise is difficult - H&M has been critizised for not living up to their CSR statements. In order for products that are not already Fairtrade-labelled to count as fair trade, the municipality must be able to guarantee that the production meets the ILO criterias. That is a costly manner - in practice it is much cheaper to purchase fairtrade-labelled products.
So what about media and the general public?
Is there a big and brewing interest for Fairtrade out there?
Yes and no - Linda tells me. From the general public she experiences a big positive energy. She is doing a lot of work lecturing for school classes, on work place etc. and she tells me how impressed she is by the different audiences' interest and knowledge. All numbers point in the right difrection - more Fairtrade products are sold, and the demand is growing.
Media attention peaks around bigger events, and was at its hightest when Lund first received the status in 2007. But it fades quickly. Nothing new about that - media interest is always ephemeral. Moreover, the neighbouring city Malmö was Sweden's first city with Fairtrade status, and Lund somehow lives in the shadow of that.
At the moment,
cooperation with Malmö, or any of the other 32 Fairtrade Cities in Sweden is not well developed
, but Linda hopes it will be. For example, procurement processes could be coordinated, in order to effectivize. That would be a way to move forward on a question that is currently troubling the fair trade community - how to diversify imports away from coffee, tea and chocolate. If small municipalities like Lund cooperate, they can afford inspections abroad, and procure products that are not faritrade-labelled, but proven fair trade.Linda points out is that this is how the Swedish regions work when procuring fair trade goods, and that municipalities should even cooperate on a national scale
It is clear that the question about cooperation animates her - Linda goes into quite some depth here. She asks for a much more active stance from the Swedish government. Sweden has signed the ILO conventions, and it makes very much sense that we also demand that the products we buy are produced under dignified circumstances. Rather than being ideological,
Fair trade is a way to leave the political differences aside, and focusing on practical solutions.
For Linda, fair trade goes perfectly well together with market liberalism. Making municipalities buying Fairtrade-branded products is not about limiting trade - it is about a trade that is truly free, where the municipality is the sole master of its own money.
We are talking about a lot of money. Approximately € 52 billion is used for public procurement each year. Deciding on how to use these money right is a major undertaking. "We must take responsibility for how our tax payers money are being used" Linda says. And that responsibility must be taken on the highest level.
Fair trade is not a quick fix to solve poverty, it is about giving people living space. No matter how structurally harmful it is for a country to be dependent on cash crops like coffee - a farmer in a developing country has little or no choice about what to do with his time. By not disrupting lives but by giving producers resources to choose and plan their lives, fair trade hopes to enable them to break harmful patterns themselves. Not buying the cash crops produced in the developing world is likely to hurt the poorest most. "The same goes for cloth factories in South Asia - the conditions might be horrible, but boycott is no solution." Linda points out that
when people choose between unemployment and exploitive employment and unemployment, the tend to choose the latter.
Our time is up, and the final question is inevitable -
"How does teh Fair trade city Lund look ten years from now?"
Linda smiles again... "Oh.. I really can't say". She is sure that there will still be a need for Fairtrade labelling, and more information campaigns, but also that the supply and demand for fair trade products will be much bigger than now. There will also be many more kinds of products to choose from - the current focus on bananas, coffe and tea will have shifted towards manufactured goods.
The municipality will deal with the issue more professionally, and with much more experience. There will be better routines for procurement and better controls of suppliers. "What we can see is that these each action spawns more actions, in a chain rection. As a direct effect of the fair trade work, Lund's municipality now has a code of good beaviour for its suppliers."
Linda and Thibault seem to have history on their side - the number of fairtrade-labelled products visible in Swedish supermarkets have skyrocketed in the last years. The Swedish Fairtrade foundation states that between 2008 and 2009 sales of faritrade-labelled goods increased from € 73 m to € 91 m. Maybe it is when fair trade becomes profitable for supermarkets, that we can expect big changes to come. Municipalities, and civil servants like Linda play a decisive role when applying ethical norms to municipalities billion-euro procurement processes. But the idea about a trade that is profitable but not exploitive did not come from there - it came from world shops like ABC, and volunteers like Thibault.