It was the Fairtrade Supporters Conference in London today, one of the best Fairtrade Foundation conferences I've attended.
I would have liked to have seen more reflection about the future of Fairtrade campaigning in the UK. This sort of conference could be the space for genuine consultation and strategic debate about the direction of the Fairtrade movement. As it is, they are always rather top-down in approach and tend to take the campaigners for granted, treating them as a resource to be deployed rather than as co-creators in a shared endeavour.
Nevertheless, the conference still did a great job making us feel part of a campaigning community, stoking up enthusiasm and sharing useful information. It was good to hear about DFID's £12m of new investment in Fairtrade, aiming to bring another million producers into the system. Harriet Lamb described how costly and time consuming it can be to bring new producers or commodities into the system, using the example of Zaytoun olive oil from Palestine which took over five years to certify Fairtrade. For all the success of Fairtrade, it still requires substantial external investments to scale up and deepen its impact.
The final panel discussion of the day - "what role does fairness play in sustainable consumption" - was particularly interesting.
The panellists reflected on the difficult issue of selling Fairtrade to people living in poverty in the UK: a question to which there are no easy answers. What is clear is that driving down the prices paid to developing world farmers to produce artificially cheap food is not a fair solution to the complex problem of food poverty in the UK.
Sophi Tranchell of Divine Chocolate and Renwick Rose of the Windward Islands Farmers' Association spoke of the need to stay one step ahead of the multinationals coming on board the Fairtrade system. Of course the big mainstream companies will use the Fairtrade mark for their own advantage, that is as we should expect. The important thing is ensure that the pioneer companies that are truly committed to investing in the future of Fairtrade survive as well.
Ann Pettifor spoke of the need for Fairtrade to be situated in a context where developing countries are able to prioritise food security and broad-based sustainable economies over the narrow export-driven growth model of development fostered on so many of them by the World Bank and the IMF over the last three decades. She read a lovely quote from John Maynard Keynes back in 1933: "Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel--these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily national."
Finally, there was a proposal from one member of the audience that buying Fairtrade could inhibit people from taking more radical action, that the feelgood factor a Fairtrade purchase engenders could absolve individuals of any further responsibility to make the world a better place. Joe Human from Keswick stood up and made a memorable response. Unfortunately I didn't write it down so I can only loosely paraphrase, but it went something like this: Fairtrade transforms people gradually. It is a habit that grows, four or five years down the line, into activism. It doesn't just change your shopping habits, it changes the way you relate to the world.