Everything has changed since I started dramatizing Fairtrade issues in 2007. I know that a week is a long time in politics, and after a decade committed to Fairtrade I suppose I should not begrudge having to revisit the whole thing again.
It’s much easier to get information these days. But much harder to know what to believe. The big question seems to be how much of what we read can we trust. There’s so much propaganda out there.
It’s like some kind of civil war where ethics and economics are getting all mixed up. It’s Fairtrade against the Multinationals. Some are calling for a kind of appeasement, a working together – but that’s a hard thing to justify. One thing is for sure, it’s not easy to work out what is the best thing to do for those in the ‘developing’ countries who produce our food but are still living in poverty. It’s very complex theatre of war right now. We need more than ever to wake up and smell the coffee.
Think Global, Act Local – and other handy little clichés that don’t really help. The simple message of Fairtrade has become much more complicated, till sometimes I feel like you’d need a degree in development economics to understand what’s going on. And I’m assuming none of us have that, I certainly don’t. My medium of communication is narrative – that’s the tool I work with. There’s no fairtrade in publishing – but I wonder if the ‘rise of the indie’ can offer any kind of parallel? Or is it just a red herring (like so many things in the modern publishing revolution.)
If there is a parallel, I suspect it’s only as another example of the rise and rise of global capitalism.
Now you know I used to trust the Fairtrade mark implicitly. But when Cadbury’s chose Cocoa Life instead of pure Fairtrade – I began to have misgivings. Especially when they want to keep the Fairtrade Logo – Choose Cocoa Life it’s Fairtrade lite, but it’s much better for you – or for the farmer/producers. This is the message I’m getting and I somehow don’t believe it.
So now I’m asking questions about chocolate. Questions I thought I’d already answered for myself. And now I’m questioning fairtrade itself.
The argument as far as I can see it is:
Beans get mixed up on the road to market – you can never tell how much of a sack of beans has fairtrade and non fairtrade beans in it. So received wisdom has it that the way to circumvent this problem is to make the final producers pay the full fairtrade price for the amount of beans that they buy. If they buy 5 million they pay for 5 million fairtrade beans. I’m not good at maths but something about this sort of maths strikes me as at best counter-intuitive and at worst, dare I say it, somewhat corrupt.
Okay, to the fairtrade guys get paid what they need, but who is getting the rest of the fairtrade premium? It must be the ones producing non fairtrade beans.
From where I’m looking it seems that basically some of the middle men on the international markets are making a killing. Who else is getting the money? And as a by product, workers are still being exploited. Maybe not the fairtrade workers but the others who grow the other beans.
I know, I know, this is the reality of the world. And Fairtrade tries to reassure me by telling me that what matters much to most people is to make sure that the fairtrade farmers are as well off as can be. Their commitment is to that and now they are ‘in partnership’ with the big boys, they are also doing other things to help make the life of the small fairtrade producer sustainable. Blood money anyone? Are they simply being given a share of the ill-gotten gains back again in order to keep the ‘brand’ of Fairtrade alive.
Unfortunately, I am an awkward customer. And the problem is that what matters most to me is not that the small fairtrade farmer is ‘on the up’ (though of course I want them to flourish and thrive) for me the most important thing is that I’m not eating chocolate that was produced by child slave labour. And I can’t be sure of that now. Not now, not ever. (Maybe if I only buy chocolate confirmed as grown and marketed by the traditional fairtrade co-operative organisations such as Divine Chocolate? I’m losing confidence even in that until I have done much more research.)
The issue here is that we are both exploited and exploiters in every mouthful. I don’t believe that ethics is something that can be manipulated by, or is a tool of, an economic system. But I’m confronted with a world in which we have the best ethics money can buy. J’accuse Fairtrade Foundation (maybe without good cause) of this stance.
The reality is we are in a third world war. It is a global war of economics. The global war on terror is just one front. I’m a pacifist by nature. I never thought that in my lifetime I’d be confronted with the appalling ethical dilemma of pacifism. If I don’t fight, people will die. If I fight, people will die. People will suffer and die whether I act or whether I don’t. I am part of the problem by very fact of being a person. Should I keep firm and state that making war on war is more ethical if one sits on the sidelines shouting ‘peace’ than standing up and being counted by fighting. And how to you fight this anyway?
Well you don’t fight it with tirades such as this. This sort of writing has to be turned into something sweet – or so I’ve always believed. It’s the smart way to do it of course. But maybe it’s important to go beyond the sugar, maybe it’s time to inject a bit of salt into the mix. Maybe it’s the time for salted caramel. So my question is – how do we write salted caramel? How do we deal with the complexity and still tell a story that engages people who just want a sweet deal?
Cally Phillips, May 2017.
This article is posted in advance of the first writing workshop to be held in Turriff this Wednesday to offer McRenegades, or other 'interested parties' the chance to join in. In case you are far fae Turra but feel like you've something to chip in or chew over, you'd be welcome to join us virtually - either to follow along with the discussion topics from the workshops or to submit your own fairtrade story for the 'Fly cups and Fancy Pieces' publication. For more information check it out here http://www.thedeveronpress.scot/projects.html