Why should we remember Fairtrade Fortnight?

"The fields of the poor may produce abundant food,” wrote the author of the Book of Proverbs, “but injustice sweeps it away." How much has changed in 2,000 years, or even in 3,000? The Biblical writers saw the damage caused by injustice in trade and, although agricultural systems and patterns of trade have changed radically in 3,000 years, the reality of injustice has not. Old Testament laws sought to tackle inequality by commanding everyone, especially those with assets and power, to deal with their neighbours fairly in commerce. In later years, the prophets had to regularly remind the people of God’s standards, calling them to account for “skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales” (Amos 8:5) and then to repentance. Jesus himself had plenty to say to his followers about the role of money; “storing up treasures in heaven” is very different from attempting to always get the cheapest deal!

Bridging the gap between rich and poorL~

Peter Heslam from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity brings this picture up to date: “In some ways…it is the church and its impulse towards mission that has helped to facilitate globalisation. This gives it a particular responsibility to use all the resources at its disposal…to ensure that globalisation works as a blessing and not as a curse to humanity. It has been estimated that Christians control $10 trillion around the world – about a quarter of the world’s annual production of wealth. If we were to decide to invest our wealth differently and shape institutions to achieve this goal, we could help to change the global economy.”

So much of our wealth is spent on what we eat, drink and wear and by spending it thoughtfully we can help change the global economy. We are often very far removed from the food that we eat, so that what sustains us will have first passed through many hands and processes and perhaps travelled thousands of miles. The relationship between producing, purchasing and consuming is more indirect than in Biblical times, but the principles underpinning it remain the same. If we are eating and drinking the products of exploitation or simply benefiting from a system that puts cheapness for consumers above the dignity and wellbeing of producers, then we too need to be reminded of God’s standards.

In the last decade, the Fairtrade movement in the UK has done a great deal to remind us, bringing the plight of small-scale producers to public attention and to bridge the gap between producer and consumer, poor and rich. MRDF is a charity shareholder and long-term supporter of the Fairtrade Foundation which numbers seven church-based organisations among its fourteen charity shareholders. Fairtrade is a success by many standards: 1 in 2 people now recognise the FAIRTRADE Mark; over 3,000 different products are available and major retailers like Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer’s have switched entire product lines to Fairtrade. Yet this has only happened due to years of committed support and groundwork done behind the scenes by churches with Fairtrade stalls, events and services.

The difficulties experienced by poor producers and workers in developing countries vary greatly from product to product. The majority of coffee and cocoa, for example, is grown by independent small farmers, working their own land and marketing their produce through a local co-operative. For these producers, receiving a fair price for their beans is more important than any other aspect of fair trade. Most tea, however, is grown on estates. The concern for workers employed on tea plantations is fair wages and decent working conditions.

To address this, the Fairtrade Foundation has two sets of independently verified standards. The first is for smallholders organised in co-operatives or similar democratic, participative organisations. The second set applies to organised workers, whose employers pay decent wages, guarantee the right to join trade unions and provide good housing when relevant. On plantations and in factories, minimum health and safety as well as environmental standards must be complied with, and no forced or child labour can occur.

A sweeter taste from Fairtrade bananasL~

But what difference do these standards make in practice? One great example of Fairtrade in action is the banana trade. Bananas are the UK’s most popular fruit, both for consumers – we eat 7 billion a year! – and for supermarkets, where bananas are the third biggest selling product. Yet if we thought about more carefully about how bananas get to us, they might not taste so sweet. Most bananas are grown on large plantations where chemical use is rife and workers often face insecurity, low wages and dangerous conditions. Small family farms find it impossible to compete with their artificially low prices, and many have abandoned their plots. However, FAIRTRADE Mark bananas guarantee growers higher prices and a host of other benefits.

Aquilino Duran’s banana farm in the northwest of the Dominican Republic is a hive of activity on harvest day. Aquilino is a member of a farmers’ co-operative that has been certified to sell to the Fairtrade market since 2004. For each box sold this way, Aquilino earns an agreed and stable price which can be a dollar or so more than he would earn from the conventional market. No wonder farmers like him are keen to improve and invest in their production. Aquilino says: “The Fairtrade premium has helped many farmers improve their packing facilities…We have also established projects in the community such as sports facilities, schools, repairing houses and many more things.” This co-operative can still see many more things they’d like to help change through the Fairtrade premium. As well as supporting their own members with training and technical advice, they hope to assist other co-operative members to meet European supermarket requirements, improve farm roads, support more local school improvements and invest in a local maternal health centre.

Harriet Lamb, Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation, is keen to emphasise that this kind of success does not mean that Fairtrade has achieved all it set out to do: “Fairtrade has demonstrated its potential to help producers improve their livelihoods, strengthen their businesses and benefit their communities, but compared with what is needed in the poorer countries of the world, we’ve really only begun to make a dent in the struggle against poverty and unfair trade.”

Taking up the challenge in your churchL~

So what is the role of Christians today in the Fairtrade movement? As Fairtrade pioneers, can we now sit back and leave promoting Fairtrade up to the supermarkets? If we do, I believe we are missing an opportunity to put our faith into action at a local level as well as to bring increased benefit to our global neighbours.

The 1,000th Fairtrade Church was Copmanthorpe Methodist Church near York and over 3,000 more have been inspired to join the scheme since then. Being a Fairtrade Church means at a minimum committing to using Fairtrade tea and coffee for meetings and after services; seeking to use other Fairtrade products (such as sugar, biscuits and fruit) and promoting Fairtrade through events, worship and other activities whenever possible. But many churches and circuits, like Witney and Farringdon Circuit, go much further than that, becoming key players in Fairtrade Town campaigns and working together with other faith groups, local government and retailers. Organiser Wendy Madison explains why her circuit got involved: "Becoming a Fairtrade church or Circuit is an extremely challenging and rewarding thing to do, but it enables us to make a huge statement to the community that we, as Christians, care about issues of justice and fairness in the world trading system. During the process we learnt that the choices we make as consumers have enormous implications for some of our poorest brothers and sisters in developing countries. Fairtrade enables us to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem and that is very empowering.”

Nottingham and Derby District is one of four Methodist Districts so far who have ‘gone Fairtrade’, with several others midway through the process. Organisers in Nottingham and Derby began the campaign at District level with the clever technique of appealing to people’s tastebuds first, passing Fairtrade chocolate around the Synod as they presented their proposals. This engaged representatives and helped overcome some old prejudices about the inferior quality of Fairtrade. John Hindson, the District’s MRDF Co-ordinator explains what happened next: “At circuit and church level we discussed Fairtrade at Circuit Meetings and Church Councils, because until then members may not have thought about the power that we have as shoppers. The bottom line for me as a Christian is that Christ hated injustice and unfairness and so should we - buying Fairtrade means that justice is being done.”

The need for Fairtrade shows that the current economic system often fails the world’s poorest people. Supporting Fairtrade as individuals and churches is one way of expressing the practical concern for the vulnerable which is at the heart of the Christian faith. Of course Fairtrade certification alone is not going to reform a complex and imbalanced international trading system, which is why MRDF and the Fairtrade Foundation are also involved in campaigning for trade justice to rewrite the rules and agreements which govern all of international trade, not just the comparatively small Fairtrade market.

As publicity around Fairtrade Fortnight starts in February, Fairtrade may seem to be just another consumer choice. But for banana farmer Aquilino Duran it is far more significant. The last word rests with him: “For us it feels like God has come down from heaven and been sent to our farms. My hope is that I will be able to continue making progress, and be able to educate my children and my family. As for the farm, with all the help that we get from Fairtrade, we have hopes of a good future.”

What you can doL~

~**Become a Fairtrade Church - http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/get_involved_faiths.htm*~~*Use Fairtrade Fortnight (25 February – 9 March 2008) as an opportunity to get your church on board.*~~*• For prayers, readings and practical ideas, download the Fairtrade Fortnight Church Action Guide from http://www.mrdf.org.uk/pages/churches_and_groups.php**~