Home     About     Journalism     Contact


King goes bananas for Fairtrade

The scheme has thrived with the support of the supermarkets, writes David Derbyshire

Standing in the dappled shadow of her banana plantation, blue plastic bags covering the growing bunches behind her, Lucian Charles has no doubts what has kept her — and her two daughters — going.

Two years ago, her three acre farm in La Cave, St Lucia, was destroyed by a deluge of mud and water swept from the hillsides by Hurricane Tomas.

"I was completely wiped out.

There was nothing except for little plants, and the shed was washed away," said Charles, 33. "I thought, Oh my God, how am I going to cope? "Fairtrade has made a lot of difference. Without it, we would have no bananas. And it has paid for computers at my daughter's school."

Fairtrade was once seen in the same light as church coffee mornings and worthy charity stalls. Yet 20 years after it was launched in Britain, the movement has come of age.

According to the latest figures published for Fairtrade Fortnight, its distinctive logo appears on 4,500 products in the UK and its global sales have reached 1.3 billion.

And unlike sales of organic food, which fell 10% last year, Fairtrade sales were up 12%.

The logo appears on all Cadbury Dairy Milk, Ben and Jerry's ice cream, four-finger Kit Kats, Tate and Lyle sugar and, later this year, Maltesers.

In the high street, the Co-op shouts the loudest about ethical shopping. In recent years, however, stiff competition has come from J Sainsbury, whose chief executive Justin King is a vocal supporter.

Under his leadership, Sainsbury converted its own-brand chocolate, coffee, tea and hot chocolate to Fairtrade. And in 2007 it became the only supermarket chain to sell 100% Fairtrade bananas.

For all its success, Fairtrade has plenty of detractors.

From the right, groups such as the Adam Smith Institute say it harms farmers outside the system and keeps poor growers trapped in unsustainable industries.

On the left, the charge is greenwash — that Fairtrade eases consciences without challenging trade inequalities. 

So who is right? And why would a serious businessman such as King be such a backer of Fairtrade? 

The premise of Fairtrade is simple. For most products, buyers must pay a minimum fair price to farmers. The price is fixed locally by Fairtrade. If commodity prices rise above the minimum price, buyers must buy at the market value.

Coffee producers, for example, get a minimum Fairtrade price of $1.40 (87p) per pound of beans. However, when the world price is above $1.40, growers get the market price. In exchange, farmers sign up to standards on health, safety and the environment.

Buyers also pay a Fairtrade premium to communities. For every box of Fairtrade bananas, West Indian farmers get $1. For each pound of coffee, they get 20 cents.

The farmers decide where the cash goes. Many choose to invest in computers for schools, farm equipment, and scholarships to help children pay for books and uniforms.

That's the theory, but in practice does it make a difference? Ask anyone involved in Fairtrade for a success story and they point to St Lucia in the Windward Islands.

Twelve years ago the island's banana growers were on the verge of giving up. The island's small, family farms were unable to compete with the industrial scale Americanowned plantations of Latin America. The former British colony was reliant on beneficial tariffs and by the 1990s was given preferred access to the European Union.

After America launched a legal challenge with the World Trade Organisation, the EU was forced to introduce a single tariff for all banana imports. Exports from the Windwards fell from 274,000 tonnes in 1992 to 82,000 in 2009.

On St Lucia unemployment rose, income fell and crime and drug problems soared. The number of farmers fell from 27,000 in 1992 to 3,500.

Then Fairtrade arrived. In 2001 the first growers converted .

As European shoppers showed they were willing to pay a premium for ethical fruit, more farmers switched.

In 2007, Sainsbury decided it would sell only Fairtrade bananas — and announced that 100m would come from St Lucia each year. Today, more than 90% of all bananas grown on St Lucia and the other Windward Islands are Fairtrade. Wherever you meet farmers on the island, the message is the same. Without British shoppers paying a premium for fruit, there would be no bananas.

Julius Polius, soil scientist, grower and chairman of the Windward Island Farmers' Association, said: "Fairtrade is critical for the survival of bananas in the Windwards and the survival of livelihoods of many people."

For Harriet Lamb, the British director of Fairtrade UK, the survival of St Lucia's farming industry shows that fair prices benefit local economies.

In the Maraba operative in Rwanda — where 12,000 farmers sell Fairtrade coffee through the Union Hand-Roasted Coffee label — a bank has been set up on the back of higher living standards. "Because there is a bank they can borrow money to invest," she said. "The impact differs from place to place, but farmers have been empowered in every case.

"It's also important for the long-term sustainability of supply chains. When Cadbury Dairy Milk went Fairtrade, it was in part because they realised the average age of cocoa farmers in Ghana was 56. Young people were not coming into farming. If you want people to grow cocoa in the future, and if you want to have chocolate in the future, you have to invest in the farmers."

And it's that investment in the supply chain that appears to be key to King's support for Fairtrade. "If we leave it to the markets, we will not be able to source the products in the future, or the price will be too high," he said.

In Britain, the switch to Fairtrade continues. Morrisons this week announced all its sugar would carry the logo, while the Co-op has joined Sainsbury and switched to 100% Fairtrade bananas.

Copyright David Derbyshire 2012