Fairtrade launched itself on a global scale as the ethical alternative to the big, nasty, exploitative corporations. But has it become part of the very product it sought to distance from?
Nine years ago, there was a special Fairtrade talk in my secondary school where we were to be told why we should all buy Fairtrade chocolate.
The lecturer decided the best way to teach us would be to get us to name our favourite confectionary before scornfully dismissing it.
“Galaxy? That’s not even chocolate…that’s candy that is!” was one particularly striking retort, while Cadbury was also derided for containing too few cocoa beans to be considered ‘real’ chocolate.
The message was simple: Cadbury, Galaxy et al were not the right path to supporting ethical food and trading – we should all buy Divine and its like instead.
While it may not have been the friendliest way of going about it, the lesson tied in with the initiative Fairtrade was trying to push. A year earlier, the Fairtrade Certification Mark had been launched, marking a new chapter in the company’s history.
The logo – now universally recognised – was part of a vision to make Fairtrade products more visible, more prominent, and thus more regularly bought by making it easier for people to see that they were making a difference.
In the confectionary market, this meant an attempt to make a clean break from an already fiercely competitive industry.
Now, this worked to an extent, but trying to force a capitalist society to shun some of the products that epitomise its daily life makes convincing a bunch of adolescents that the chocolate they’ve grown up eating isn’t even chocolate sound easy.
It’s fair to say that despite significant sales of Fairtrade chocolate in many bars, cafes and restaurants, the products never came close to threatening the popularity of the chocolate bars that had been put down so dismissively in our school lecture.
Just a few years ago, Fairtrade products accounted for only one out of every one hundred chocolate bars bought in Britain.
Yet that has changed. Somewhat miraculously, Fairtrade Director of Policy and Communications Barbara Crowther told the BBC show Watchdog a few weeks ago that the ratio is now one in eight.
To put that another way, for every thousand chocolate bars bought in the UK, 125 of them are now Fairtrade as opposed to 10 a few years ago. So how has this revolution happened?
The answer seems unavoidably to lie at the very companies once held as the problem to ethical chocolate.
– In July 2009, the first FairTrade Dairy Milk bars rolled out of the Cadbury factory.
– In November 2009, Nestle’s 4-Finger KitKat became Fairtrade certified
– In June 2012, Fairtrade Maltesers hit British stores as part of Mars Chocolate’s attempt at getting in on the growing market.
With these particular bars having provided over £7m for the Fairtrade farming scheme, it is difficult to underestimate the impact the confectionary giants have had in transforming Fairtrade.
Of course, Divine and Co-operative chocolate bars have not fallen from existence – they continue to sell well. But the exponential leaps in progress have occurred with the introduction of Dairy Milk, Kitkat, and Maltesers.
All of which leaves both the Fairtrade company and their customers with a few things to ponder.
The amount of Fairtrade chocolate products sold in this country has grown rapidly in recent years, and will continue to do so, which is a great positive.
However, the real progress has been achieved by securing Cadbury, Nestle, and Mars in the partnership. Where the mainstream was once derided, it has now taken over.
Precisely because of this, the question must be floated as to whether every person who buys one of those three chocolate bars does so because they want to support Fairtrade, or just because they like the chocolate, regardless of the ethics.
It would seem highly unlikely that the latter was not the case.
So, Fairtrade’s mission over the last ten years has been a success – the chocolate bars are firmly integrated into daily life. But this seems to have been achieved not by making the logo and products strikingly different from the mainstream, but by becoming absorbed into it.
The revolution has been made for the people then, not by them. A manufactured result with the original outcome but a different set of Napoleons pulling the strings.
Whether that is something to celebrate or not depends entirely on your take on Fairtrade, but the current direction seems very unlike to change anytime soon.