Our pineapples are grown by small scale, organic, Fairtrade farmers in Togo, West Africa. It’s an insanely idealistic and ambitious project co-ordinated by the NGO ProNatura who must win trust, co-ordinate production and provide technical support to hundreds of widely dispersed farmers on tennis-court sized fields cut out of the bush. Once the farmers have carried the fruit in baskets to a dirt road, containers must be packed, loaded and transported on decrepit trucks to Tema in Ghana, ready for the 10-20 day journey to Southampton. Overall it’s a huge credit to everyone’s determination to make Fairtrade work. It is also a testimony to the commitment of our staff and forgiveness and support of our customers, because inevitably the first few containers were a disaster; it would be much easier to buy airfreighted fruit from larger scale suppliers.
I visited the project in 2010 with its backer Henri de Pazzis (see the video), partly to see for myself whether Fairtrade really works for producers. From this in addition to meeting our banana growers in the Dominican Republic, coffee growers in Brazil and cocoa growers in Ghana, my conclusion is that though there are persistent problems in rewarding quality and guaranteeing a niche market for the produce, on balance Fairtrade is improving the lives of small scale farmers. Like organic farming it may not be a perfect or whole answer, but as an alternative to the brutal exploitation of world commodity markets, it is doing a pretty good job and deserves our support.
That said, after 20 years of growth, last year UK Fairtrade sales fell by 4%. Some blame the rise of discounters and the recession, but I suspect that cynical and often bogus claims of alternative products being “better than Fairtrade” have eroded support and given us an excuse to be selfish. Traders the world over hate anything that gets in the way of them cutting a good deal. More irritatingly is the rise of the bearded food trendy who has come to lament Fairtrade as an obstacle to rewarding consistent crop quality. They have a point, but I could introduce them to many a farmer whose children would not have gone to school or had medical care without Fairtrade; perhaps they might muse on that as they lament the lack of complexity in their Hoxton brew.