When did fair trade become a consumerist concept?

Fair trade bananas

Maxhavel/German Wikipedia project under a Creative Commons Licence

This week I got a call from my former university’s alumni magazine. This year, I was told, will mark a decade since the institution made the move to swap all of its tea and coffee – a million cups a year – to Fairtrade suppliers. In so doing, it became Scotland’s first – and Britain’s second – ‘Fairtrade University’. That decision followed a campaign involving a now-legendary Students’ Association AGM when so many people turned up to support the campaign, that every seat of Edinburgh’s largest lecture theatre was taken. People had to sit in the aisles, and then, as it kept filling up, on the stage.

It’s difficult not to feel philosophical, looking back. Fairtrade for most has become a depoliticized, consumerist concept, in some ways more comfortable for a Nestlé executive than a grassroots activist. But it wasn’t always like that. It emerged against the backdrop of the rise of the global justice movement, which was putting the unfair state of trade rules centre stage through their protests at international summits. Fair trade, for us, was a way of bringing those arguments home.

I started university in 2003, the year of the beginning of the Iraq war. The People and Planet group was already attracting nearly 100 to bigger meetings, having been leaders of the anti-war movement on campus. Demonstrating the early days of what would nowadays be called e-campaigning, we had a rapidly growing mailing list and a profile enhanced by creative actions at careers fairs against the weapons companies profiting from the war.

We knew that the rich countries weren’t only harming poor countries with their bombs, but with their economic policies. But campaigning in the abstract was difficult – even in an academic institution. The Fairtrade University idea was a way of tangibly standing in practical solidarity with the people the global economic system would otherwise be harming, while doing something important to most English and Scots people’s lives: drinking tea.

But it wasn’t only about the producers. It was also about us. Even though the New Labour government of the time thought there was no alternative to neoliberalism, here we were coming together in collective institutions like the Students’ Association and university, saying: we’re not just consumers, we’re citizens, too. Pioneering the concept of being a Fairtrade University was in a small way demonstrating an alternative to the so called ‘free market’ ideology which was already failing, and which led to the spectacular crash of 2008.

But best of all, the organizing was fun. There was a Fairtrade fashion show, a Fairtrade football tournament, a Fairtrade fair, Fairtrade wine tasting, a Fairtrade film and a Fairtrade photo exhibition. We also became one of the first universities to stock Fairtrade clothing. When the same people who had opposed our campaign for Fairtrade attempted to overturn the Students’ Association’s longstanding Nestlé ban, they were resolutely defeated. When local Green MSP Mark Ballard  won the contest for University Rector against the much better known Boris Johnson, the commitment to champion and extend the university’s Fairtrade status formed a central part of the winner’s manifesto.

The idea started snowballing. After re-affiliating to the National Union of Students (NUS) and learning about the intricacies of how student unions are supplied, we proposed to the National NUS Conference that the basic suppliers should be swapped to Fairtrade at all NUS unions. It passed, and they did. All the while the number of Fairtrade Universities blossomed. 

We were part of the movement that helped Fairtrade take off, in so doing building solidarity with countless producers. I’m proud of having been part of it, but still can’t disguise a speck of sadness. For us, as for the Fairtrade Foundation, fair trade was always a step to something bigger: we mobilized for the Make Poverty History march (for Trade Justice, Debt Cancellation and Aid – in that order) which converged on the Edinburgh Meadows in July 2005, and we supported the other G8 protests against the systems that keep poor countries poor. But others seemed to have different ideas about what fair trade could be used for. At first, the messages of support and the motions in parliaments from parties across the spectrum was exciting. But then, we began wondering whether politicians of governing parties might be using their statements in support of fair trade as a way of deflecting the responsibility for tackling global poverty back on to the voters, rather than taking action themselves.

Then the corporations cottoned on the success of fair trade. For them it was a way to improve their bottom line and to lessen criticism on other fronts. When Nestlé was allowed to use the mark on KitKats, it was a point of no return. Although we still supported fair trade, it could no longer help us explain the problems of corporate power or work to tackle it. At best, it could only be a way of ameliorating some of the worst aspects of the economic system.

I graduated in 2008, before the full effects of the financial crash and before the 2010 elections. Since then, the conditions and policies that we protested about being imposed on majority-world countries have increasingly been imposed on our own. From enforced austerity, to new trade deals handing yet more power to corporations to the increasing privatization of education, we don’t have to bring the issues home any more. They are here already.

So now the spirit is still there, but the character of the campaigns is changing. In comparison to the more recent waves of students breaking into Conservative Party headquarters and occupying their lecture theatres, our generation’s polite campaigns for fair trade tea and coffee seem almost sweetly reformist. But the work was born of a radical instinct, and a desire to see not just fair coffee, but a fair economy. That’s a struggle that’s very much continuing today.