Is fair trade working?

This follows my earlier posts – Chocolate’s dark side – Interpol: hundreds of thousands of child slaves on cocoa plantations.

Ever since colonial times, commodities like tea, coffee and cocoa have been shipped to consumers in the North from producers in the South. By the end of the 20th century, some NGOs began to question the arrangements for this. The trade seemed to be one-sided and exploitative, impoverishing communities in the South and the environment. One strategy to break this cycle was to try and create a brand of ‘Fairtrade’ commodities that offered better prices to producers.

Fairtrade’s still going but it’s a bit hard to get my head around what this UK-based foundation actually does. They claim that producers licensed by them pay their labour a decent wage. So, all we have to do is switch to an ethical trademark and then people who profit from child slavery would not be in business, right?

Sadly, two decades after the launch of Fairtrade it seems the bad guys are still very much in business and doing rather well. In the UK, for example, people now chomp through an average 10kg of chocolate a year. That’s an incredible 640 thousand metric tons, or a third of Europe’s total. Yet Fairtrade tells us that only a tiny percentage of the cocoa that goes into this mountain is certifiably from plantations that pay their workers a living wage. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Fairtrade must have seemed like a good idea and probably still appeals to many people but it has not cleaned up dirty chocolate. Using their own figures I estimate it will take centuries for slavery to be eradicated from chocolate in the UK. The big corporations involved in this dirty chocolate must be laughing all the way to the bank.

To be fair to British chocaholics, the problem is made worse by the buyers, traders, grinders and processors of the beans. They are said to mix up the crop. This makes it virtually impossible to know exactly where the cocoa in your chocolate comes from, or to guarantee that it doesn’t include some from a slave owner’s plantation. The same ships, processing plants, facilities and exchanges seem to be used for slave and non-slave cocoa. Even the tin of drinking chocolate featured here contains a blend of cocoas – 40% organic certified by the Soil Association, (most probably from Latin America). 60% is Fairtrade certified, most probably from West Africa.

Another well-meaning stab at this comes from liberal Holland. There, Tony’s Chocolonely 100% Slave Free Chocolate say they’re trying to do more than Fairtrade on this issue. How exactly I’m not sure. One thing I am sure about though, the Dutch alone can resolve this. Others think that buying organic chocolate is a safe bet because so little of it is produced in places like the Ivory Coast.

Personally, I’m not sure how cool or morally justifiable it is to promote choice on this issue. I mean, how can you chomp your way through a bar of ‘Fairtrade / slave-free / organic chocolate’ knowing full well that your friends, family and community continue to consume many more bars of the stuff produced by exploiting children? With so few people making the free availability of dirty chocolate an issue, it’s no wonder the chocolate industry continues to just shrug it off, like water off a duck’s back.

In my next post I’ll look at what, if anything, we can do in Turkey to prevent the import of cocoa associated with child slavery.

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