This morning the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee held its first public session on “Fair Trade and Development”, the focus of its latest inquiry. Like most consumers in this country, I have developed a particular fondness for the Fairtrade brand, and am impressed by its apparently endless spread into new products and sectors – highlighted during the current Fairtrade Fortnight (26 Feb - 11 March 2007). But as an international development professional, the IDC inquiry has forced me to ask the difficult question: what difference can Fairtrade really make? Despite rapid growth, it remains tiny – stubbornly stuck outside the mainstream. For the vast majority of small scale producers, the cost and complexity of qualifying means that it remains far out of reach. It unfairly deflects attention away from the wide range of good business practices out there (not Fairtrade = unFairtrade?). And it could never substitute for real progress on world trade reform – making trade fair for all developing country producers.
But this should not obscure the important ways in which Fairtrade is already making a difference. Beyond the obvious direct benefits to the producers it works with, it has been enormously powerful in highlighting the importance of an enterprise-driven approach to poverty reduction – so often absent in discussions by donors and NGOs. Poor people don’t want charity – they want the opportunity to get jobs and grow their businesses. Fairtrade has also done a great job of raising public awareness – both about the broader inequities in international trade and the need for businesses to operate responsible supply chains – applying the principles of fair trade to their mainstream business. Fairtrade is not the panacea it is sometimes made out to be. But it has very real value in getting the right things on the agenda.