Fairtrade is the most recognised ethical label in the world and while new labeling programs and changes over the last 18 months have not been without criticism, Fairtrade continues to empower and provide long term benefits for disadvantaged producers, farmers and workers. Fairtrade International’s CEO Harriet Lamb spoke with Warren Beaumont.

OWN: Are you going to push ahead and adopt the Swedish model of bringing Fairtrade International and the trade unions closer together?

HL: The Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) is one of the members of the Fairtrade Sweden association. They hosted a 2-day discussion at the recent trade union conference, about how Fairtrade and the international trade union movement can make Fairtrade work better for workers on estates and plantations through improved wages and conditions. This is a work in progress.

Fairtrade International enshrines freedom of association and other ILO Conventions at a local and international level in our Standards. We believe that trade unions play an important role in securing the rights of workers whether Fairtrade or not, so we do work closely with them.

In many cases plantations, such as in India, are fully unionised. In Ghana the unions have been able to organise the workers in the banana plantations. Colombia is a good example where there are good relations between workers and unions and plantation owners. It is one of the few countries where workers are receiving a living wage, a credit to the work of the unions.

Our work will continue with trade unions to help us drive impact for workers on Fairtrade certified plantations and estates. We know that Fairtrade is just part of the solution and so we work with others who have an interest in moving things forward for farmers and workers.

OWN: What benefits will this bring to the Fairtrade farmers and products and the supply chain?

HL: Well, our work with trade unions is dealing specifically with workers on estates and plantations, who make up 16 percent of Fairtrade’s 1.5 million producers, the majority are small-scale farmers organized in cooperatives and associations.

The aim of closer collaboration with trade unions is specifically to bring benefits to the workers in our system. Of course there are things like the Fairtrade Premium, which the workers themselves democratically decide how to invest, but we also strive to support mature systems of industrial relations.

If workers and management are openly discussing not just wages and work conditions, but also production and productivity solutions, it increases the impact. And management will see how a satisfied workforce is a benefit to their business.

OWN: What do you believe are the major achievements for Fairtrade in 2014, and is delivering on your pledge to Fairtrade farmers of a stronger voice one of the major achievements?

HL: Last year, our general assembly made the move to ensure that the farmers and workers (organized into networks in Africa, Asia and Latin America) have half-ownership of Fairtrade International. We are proud to be the only ethical certification scheme jointly owned by the producers we serve, giving them a major role in the running of the Fairtrade system.

Another exciting aspect is our shift of producer services to our producer networks. Previously, all producer services had been coordinated centrally by Fairtrade International, with local based staff helping farmers and workers in the field. But now our producer networks in Africa & the Middle East, Latin America & the Caribbean, and Asia & Pacific regions have started to coordinate this important work themselves. This brings our work on the ground closer to the people we’re serving.

And this year we celebrated the launch of Fairtrade Brazil to help with the marketing of Fairtrade products there. This is the fourth producer country where we are now developing local markets. (Read story on page 18 in this OWN issue)

OWN: Has the label gained higher recognition globally over the last months?

HL: Global Fairtrade label recognition is now stable. In the latest Globescan research, the FAIRTRADE Mark is the most top of mind ethical/environmental product label globally – over half of consumers across 15 countries have seen the mark often or occasionally and of those 8 in 10 say the mark has a positive impact on their perceptions of a product carrying it. Now we need to deepen that recognition and help people to understand what Fairtrade can and cannot do. This is a long campaign of awareness.

We’re seeing a bit of slowdown in the developed markets like the UK, which have higher recognition – over 90 percent – because in many ways, everyone knows us. So that’s why we’re working with organizations to expand Fairtrade to other countries around the world like Korea, Hong Kong, Brazil and Poland.

OWN: Recently, a U.S. chocolate brand accused multinational brands of escaping their full fairtrade commitments under the new Fairtrade Cocoa Program certification rules launched in 2014. Is this labelling option delivering higher volumes and prices for producers or a lowering of the commitment to Fairtrade sourcing?

HL: Fairtrade Sourcing Programs (FSP) is a different way for producers to gain more sales, for businesses to engage with us – a new way to engage in the market. Not everyone wants to put a logo on their final product, but many companies want to source chocolate, sugar and cotton responsibly.

These programs are about companies scaling up their overall sourcing of Fairtrade cocoa or Fairtrade sugar instead that focus on the end product. And in fact this is what we are seeing – companies sourced over 6000 MT of cocoa under FSP in 2014, and these same companies have committed to scale up to source 22,000 MT of cocoa under FSP in 2016.

Fairtrade Sourcing Programs is already delivering more sales for farmers – $1.3 million additional Fairtrade Premium was received by cocoa farmers, from FSP sales, in 2014. We don’t have impact data on the effects of these purchases yet. This will come through in our next Monitoring and Evaluation report. But based on the commitments, we’re confident that the figures will reflect the new cocoa purchases.

Of course, protecting trust in the FAIRTRADE Mark is important, which is why we’ve added this new route so companies can drive up the demand, do the good, support producers – but at the same time we can keep that consumer trust in the strength of our label.

A product may only carry the Fairtrade Cocoa or Sugar Program Mark if 100 percent of the cocoa or sugar for that product has been sourced on Fairtrade terms.

OWN: Do you believe that ‘Organic & Fair’ are a good match when used together – do the two labels work well together globally to ensure or show a dual commitment to being more ethically, socially and environmentally responsible?

HL: Absolutely. Did you know that over 50 percent of all Fairtrade producers are also certified organic? Organic continues to be by far the most frequently reported other certification held by smallholder producers.

While Fairtrade does not certify for organic production, our Standards require sustainable farming techniques and require higher prices to be paid for organic products, so the incentive to switch to organic is there and given our requirements on the environmental side, it is easier for them to make that leap.

Fairtrade Premiums are often used to train producers in organic and sustainable techniques like composting and use of recycled materials, which can help them to convert to organic production in the future.

But organic certification and the switch to organic production can be quite costly and may be unattainable for small-scale farmers. FLOCERT, the independent certifier for Fairtrade is working to see how we can work with organic certifiers to reduce cost and time for dual certification.

OWN: We are seeing some suppliers and producers promoting what they say is Fair, sustainable, social and environmental certification or labelling without any certification or auditing by a recognised body – is this causing issues for Fairtrade and the genuine fairtrade movement and is there any role here for governments to ensure higher ethical standards?

HL: Fairness strikes a chord with people, has strong public recognition and trust from the public. We work hard to earn and maintain that trust every day – always seeking to improve, to keep Fairtrade relevant and to move our standards forward. Our recently revised Trader Standards introduce new requirements and best practices to encourage traders and businesses to go beyond certification. We are committed to regularly reviewing and revising our standards and pricing policies.

Fairtrade International applauds all efforts of other schemes or of companies that establish long-term, direct relationships with their suppliers, pay fair and stable prices, and provide access to credit and other technical assistance to their producer partners.

A number of companies operate their own programs to promote better relationships with farmers, or greater sustainability, and they vary enormously in how they operate. It’s up to consumers to keep them honest. We encourage consumers to find out more about the products they buy – ask brands whether an independent third party verifies their claims.

Independent Fairtrade certification is an assurance. For example, in Fairtrade, producers can make their own decisions about how to invest the improved income from the minimum price and the additional Fairtrade Premiums that they earn – that empowerment is a key cornerstone of Fairtrade.

But as we mentioned before, Fairtrade is just one part of the solution. We are part of the ISEAL Alliance, a global association for sustainability standards. We work with them to improve our work and ensure that we use good practices when establishing our policies and procedures.

There is also a role for governments in supporting voluntary certification schemes and our aims. There are so very many areas that absolutely need government intervention – for example around the level of minimum wages, around ensuring dominant market players do not abuse their power (the role of the new UK Grocery Code Adjudicator is important here, for example), or addressing unfair trade practices – such as the recent EU changes to the sugar regime.

In our recent Trader Standard revision, the EU Commission’s Green Paper on Unfair Trading Practices helped us to add new criteria prohibiting unfair trading practices.

In addition, the Fair Trade Advocacy Office in Brussels is doing important work with EU governments to help put Fair Trade ideas and concepts onto government agendas. So we absolutely see that voluntary certification schemes are creating solutions, and highlighting the areas that then need governments to take forward.

OWN: Tea has been cited as one of the worst examples of labour exploitation and plantations in India are often singled out as a common example of tea worker exploitation and claims they are living in poverty. Is any progress being made in India by certifying more tea plantations or companies as Fairtrade?

HL: Tea is an example of the importance of working with unions, governments and major brands all together to improve impact for workers and small-scale farmers. Fairtrade can help highlight the conditions and the problems in the tea industry and seek to work with all partners to find solutions.

Low wages are a challenge in the entire tea industry, which is why we work with the Ethical Tea Partnership and other industry initiatives to raise the bar right across the sector.

One of our major challenges is getting more sales for our tea producers on Fairtrade terms. As of last year, Fairtrade tea producers sold an average of less than 10 percent of their production on Fairtrade terms.

But tea producers in East Africa are a good example of what can be achieved with Fairtrade in tea and perhaps we can work along the supply chain and make initiatives to try and solve this major problem (see in youtube  the video The Impact of Fairtrade Tea about their work in East Africa)

OWN: Are there any other challenges or opportunities for Fairtrade? Can you see Fairtrade certification and premiums growing more strongly from 2015 and are you confident in a solid future for Fairtrade? 

HL: Fairtrade continues to innovate and make big bold moves. We have started groundbreaking work toward a living wage for workers on plantations. Coming together with other organizations such as SAI, UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance, we have commissioned benchmark studies which show just how wide is the gap between the current wages, for example on tea estates in Malawi and a real living wage for workers.

The next stage is working through how we could create a wide enough alliance with companies, governments, trade unions and others to make progress up that ladder of change.

In 2013, 40 percent of all Fairtrade producer organizations were able to sell more than 50 percent of their total production on Fairtrade terms, which is a great success, but also a lot of opportunity for us to increase the market for Fairtrade products. Sales of Fairtrade products grew by 15 per cent in 2013.

We successfully navigated the recession and have continued to grow. Of course we’ll continue to grow in importance, but there are changes on the horizon.  As companies come to realize the urgent nature of the global situation – climate change, dwindling resources, and an aging workforce – they are the ones pushing for change. It’s not only the domain of the consumer.

Certification will always be important to Fairtrade, but we need to figure out additional ways to continue moving our work further to ensure that farmers and workers can continue to benefit from emerging opportunities. This may change some of the ways we work.

We’ve taken a first step into the minefield of Fairtrade gold, shining a light on the scandalous poverty among small-scale miners. Our new textile standard due out this year will be the first that addresses the entire supply chain – not just the cut-make-trim portion. And we’re also working feverishly on introducing Fairtrade Carbon Credits.

OWN: You have been at the helm of Fairtrade for a few years now, how are you enjoying your role and its challenges, and do you believe you are helping to make a difference?

HL: Good question! Working in Fairtrade is an enormous privilege. It is always very challenging, trying to make trade work in a way that is fairer. But it is also always uniquely exciting and a joy: to speak one day with a coffee farmer in Uganda, then with the CEO of a retail chain, or to talk with local campaigners in a cold church hall!

Trying to make Fairtrade work for everyone, sometimes I certainly can feel my hairs going grey. Because people love Fairtrade and have such high expectations that it is never easy to meet.

It’s for others to say if I am making a difference, together always with an energetic, global movement. I am certainly proud that in the past years we have become the only certification body, which is half owned by the producers of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

That we are bringing in so many innovations – for example on the living wage, or on addressing climate change – and seeking to deepen our impact. And I am really excited about our new strategy 2016-2020 which our General Assembly will be voting on in June, and which includes new initiatives such as a greater focus on advocacy. So watch this space!