Ethical Consumer Week 2020
Friday, 30 October 2020 | Joanna
I've been a fan of Ethical Consumer magazine since it started back in 1989. It's consistently kept pace with the fast changing issues in environmental, trade justice and sustainable consumption. Since 1989 the focus has switched firmly towards tackling climate change, reducing single use plastic, combating the stranglehold of global giants like Amazon and fast fashion's impact on people and planet.
I was lucky enough to go to the Ethical Consumer conference in person a few years ago as Chair of BAFTS. It was held at Amnesty's London headquarters so as a member of Amnesty since I was 16 (in 1989 funnily enough) I was excited to be part of it.
My life this summer has brought me closer to the fair trade movement than ever before. Spearheading the campaign against Nestle's decision to move away from Fairtrade for KitKats, I have worked closely with people right at the very heart of fair trade from academics to the farmers themselves. We are united by the belief that fair trade works - it is the best way we have to reduce poverty, not in a blue-skies thinking, ideological way, but in a grassroots, practical, businesslike way. Some in the wider ethical, progressive movement don't like Fairtrade because they see it as working within the current economic system rather than seeking to dismantle it, and dealing with big companies like Nestle gives some credence to this idea, but for me the most important point is that for the farmers, this approach works. It's what they want. They value the democratic control, the autonomy and the voice that Fairtrade gives them.
Lots has been said over the last 6 months or so about building back better. I'm as guilty as anyone of this, having organised a Fairtrade Yorkshire conference with the theme "Building a fair trade future". The key thing is that we need to work out what "better" looks like. For most of us, who were lucky enough not to catch Covid-19, or to lose someone close, lockdown and the subsequent restrictions on our everyday life have been a good way to take stock of what's important to us. We've learnt to value our local walks, exercise, fresh air and connecting with nature, even in urban environments. We've learnt to value the connections we have with other people. Being unable to see and hug friends and family whenever we like, helping elderly parents get to grips with technology, working from home. I remarked to one colleague from the Nestle campaign that it's the closest I've ever worked with someone without ever being in the same room. Our humanity is being challenged like never before. So what can we take away from these remote months? How can we make our world better, more ethical, more sustainable?
One thing I've heard this week is that the word "sustainable" is now out of fashion in ethical circles. It's been co-opted by conventional business to describe their ability to survive the coronavirus crisis, regardless of how they do it. So a company like Matalan can say that in order to have a sustainable future it has to cancel orders and not pay for goods already produced. The effects on their suppliers are predictably devastating. You can see the list of companies who are being asked to #PayUp here.
So if we're not using sustainable any more, what do we call the kind of trade where people and planet take priority over profits - apart from fair trade of course. Well, apparently the buzzword now is "regenerative". It means the same as sustainable used to mean. It's about staying within the confines of the doughnut as outlined by Kate Raworth - lifting everyone to a minimum living standard while staying within the ecological and environmental boundaries of the planet. It's about making sure we all share in the wealth - instead of profits trickling up to "wealth creators" it stays with the people who actually do the work to create the wealth. If this sounds familiar, it should. This is the fair trade model.
One of the newest innovations of the World Fair Trade Organisation is its extension to organisations in the global north working with disadvantaged producer groups like refugees, prisoners and survivors of violence. This is also something that Fairtrade International is looking at, first from the perspective of migrant labourers in the fruit and veg farms of Southern Spain. Just because you are working in the EU does not mean you can't be exploited, and fair trade will always look to help you.
I've heard a lot this week about communities around the UK forming co-operatives to buy pubs, farms, shops, energy providers etc. Creating and retaining wealth within communities is a really good way to achieve regenerative societies, but while this is new to most of us in the UK it's the way Fairtrade and fair trade co-operatives have been operating for years and in some cases decades. I've worked closely with the RICE network this summer and their collaborative, collective, democratic set up is what a lot of the new grassroots disruptive co-ops in the UK seem to be aiming for.
But what I've found is that lots of people don't know this. They think they are being completely innovative by adopting the business models that have been tackling poverty, building resilient communities and creating better lives for farmers and workers across the global south for decades. Why don't we know this? Why aren't we able to see beyond "capitalism bad" and see that there are movements within global trade that are making a real difference to people and planet.
As we come to the end of Black History Month it's worth contemplating how and why we in the global north are so resistant to learning lessons from our brothers and sisters in Africa, Latin America and Asia. We don't hear their stories. Or if we do it's from the perspective of poor people being helped by the charity of white saviours. I don't buy Fairtrade chocolate because I want to save people's lives. I don't buy fair trade toys because I feel sorry for the workers. I have been overawed by the businesses I've seen in my 15 years of working in fair trade, most of which are much more efficiently run than my own, and therefore more resilient.
So while we're looking for the answer to how we rebuild our future, we would do well to reflect on those who are doing it quietly, tackling climate change, empowering women, creating democratic and inclusive societies that promote the wellbeing of people. Fair trade works. It's as simple as that.