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Sustainability - the halfway house to Fairtrade, or the only way worldwide and even local businesses can sustain themselves?

Sustainability - the halfway house to Fairtrade, or the only way worldwide and even local businesses can sustain themselves?

 

Whichever way you look at the argument, everyone is right. Or more accurately, we are stuck with the problem that there is not only right - v - wrong but: ‘right’, ‘not right’, ‘not wrong’, and ‘wrong’.

Isn’t this the trouble with real life? It sort of gets in the way of where we would like to be emotionally and/or philosophically. We would love to get the best coffee or tea in our cups at the very best prices and with the comfort of knowing that everyone in the supply chain including the farmer and his lowliest labourer got a fair price, a fair wage, good housing, education and healthcare whilst producing it. Oh, and let’s not forget that the equipment that produced the excellent cup of coffee we are enjoying should be carbon-positive along with the company that supplied us with it and whilst we are about it, let us make sure that our company and we at home are also carbon positive and we all act ethically at all times in all ways. Anyone in doubt should be aware that carbon positive is the best - it means that we who are do less damage than anyone else unlike those terrible carbon-negative people who won’t be told and who keep insisting on stuffing up the planet for the rest of us.

Anyway, let’s get back to it - let’s look at these various shades of right and not quite as right, and even less right, and at the bottom of the heap, plain wrong. Don’t be confused. I’m talking here about Fairtrade versus mere ‘sustainability’ in all its guises and brand names. Anyone in the vending trade will tell you that we are jumping up and down these days trying to get a Fairtrade product into vending at a price customers will buy, and at a quality that they will buy repeatedly and one where we the vending company can make enough profit to ensure we stay around to continue to provide it - otherwise what is the point?

No two ways about it, Fairtrade is the best - trouble is, it is too bloody expensive to meet all the above criteria except in small, unexceptional circumstances and even smaller doses – and at the present time choice remains restricted. So we look to the half-way house. We look to ways that are a massive improvement on what came before but are affordable by the buying public and do the least harm in the circumstances that can be done.

Think of it as stepping stones to get where we want to be - getting to a level of absolute, world-wide fairtrade in bite sized chunks. If we don’t do it this way, reality is that most firms around the world in vending, food supply and so many other product chains just will not make any sort of transition because if they do they will probably fail and be out of business. So isn’t it better to move at a pace that allows the entire world army of shopkeepers to get the message and to survive as well as we want the overseas producers to?

The two largest coffee roasters in Britain, Nestlé and Kraft Foods, have launched their own ethically aware brands in the hope that some of the success enjoyed by Fairtrade-certified products will rub off on them.

We have seen details of proposals being considered by Kraft – which owns Kenco, Carte Noire and Maxwell House – as the US food combine prepares to add a brand likely to be called Kenco Sustainable Development to its regular product lines on British supermarket shelves and in the vending sector.

Kraft is proposing to pay farmers who adhere to its ethical criteria a 20% premium on the price of green coffee beans on the open market, which this year was about 65 US cents (about 35p) a pound. The payment would be significantly less than the flat rate of $1.21 paid to farmers under the Fairtrade scheme.

Kraft’s plans have outraged the Fairtrade Foundation, set up many years ago by a group of charities that saw multinational roasting firms squeezing meagre profits made by small-scale farmers in the developing world. Some 70% of coffee comes from small farms.

Fairtrade believes a proliferation of rival certifications could damage the consumer appeal of the niche market for coffee produced to high ethical criteria. At the very least, it is likely to confuse them.

We think it is bound to confuse people; when people suggest these initiatives are ‘like Fairtrade’, we have to point out that by definition, they are, in fact, not Fairtrade.

Kraft is racing to beat market leader Nestlé to market with an ethically branded coffee. Nestlé, which makes Nescafé and Alta Rica, is understood to be preparing its own Fairtrade-style product under the Nescafé brand.

With UK coffee consumption having shrunk by 2% in six years, the success of Fair trade brands such as Cafédirect has been watched covetously by the multinational roasters. Nestlé and Kraft, however, have refused to launch a Fairtrade-certified brand, despite lobbying from charities and a stream of requests from customers.

Instead Kraft – which also makes Philadelphia and Dairylea cream cheeses as well as Terry’s Chocolate Orange and Toblerone – has asked New York-based charity Rainforest Alliance to provide its cut-price ethical certification.

The US food firm has already begun pilot marketing of Kenco Sustainable Development to the UK catering trade. It plans to double the amount of ethical coffee it buys to more than six thousand tonnes next year. In vending, it is really pushing its rainbow alliance branded products to the full - but perhaps not actually telling customers very clearly what this means.

One draft marketing statement for Kenco Sustainable Development reads: “By having their farms independently certified as being on the path to sustainability by the Rainforest Alliance the farmer gets more value for his coffee, and the man ages a farm he can be proud of and increases his independence on the open market.”

Shown this statement and others, we can’t help but say it all looks rather aspirational to us. We don’t see how you can separate environmental sustainability from economic sustainability.

If people are not making enough to send their children to school they are not going to be preoccupied with long-term issues around damage to the environment. But then again, if they don’t make enough to eat, keep a roof over their heads and still be around as this business gets ratcheted up another notch on the Fairtrade ratchet - so perhaps these steps upwards should be seen as an improvement and the those who make them should not be pilloried for being or encouraging ‘wrong’ but given points for being ‘less wrong’ than they were and encouraged to become ‘not right’ before they finally make it home.

Asked why Kraft is proposing to offer farmers substantially lower returns than the Fairtrade scheme offers, the US firm said: “We believe the majority of consumers are not willing to take the premium we would have to charge if we were to convert to the Fairtrade system.”

Nestlé said: “We believe in a sustainable approach to coffee production and … aim to reflect our beliefs in our product development. Nestlé is always looking at ways to innovate and re-energise products.”

So what does it all mean? It means that the Fairtrade people want to protect their very right stance and insist on perfection immediately for everybody concerned in any process of agriculture or manufacturing around the world - and they are right. It also means that lots of companies, big companies that employ loads of people in the west with mortgages and all the stuff of family life to pay for, want to move a little less swiftly via other schemes not quite as good perhaps as Fairtrade but maybe getting there in the end. Your pension fund and mine is likely to be partly invested in these companies - and yes, they have to protect their bottom line and their profitability for all our sakes as they make transition - and of course they are right too.

People who insist that they will only buy Fairtrade goods in support of their fellow man are always right - because their stance keeps the momentum for change going.

People who for any reason cannot be so picky and will buy sustainable goods under any name or brand are right because they know that compromise is what the world turns on and maybe it will get where we want to be in the end.

Anyone wrong so far? Only perhaps the people who will make no concession and still buy battery farmed eggs and insist on eating veal and foie gras - and do you really know many of them these days?

Lets us push for change - real change but please, let us do it at a pace that is in itself sustainable. Let us have a world where everyone gets their share and where God remains in His or Her Heaven and all is right with the world - but do you recall the story of the two bulls on top of a hill looking down on a herd of rather attractive cows? The younger bull says “Lets charge down there and “service” a few of those”. The older bull looks at him and shakes his massive head - then says “No. Let’s meander down there slowly and have the lot of them”

Perhaps proceeding down the path of sustainability is the right way - let’s make it happen all over the world - not because it has suddenly become the thing to do, but because it is the right thing and it is a sustainable change. Is that fair?

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