FairTrade is no secret of the health-conscious, the in-crowd, the environmentally aware middle-class or the simply “hipster” demographic. In fact FairTrade has very little to do with any of these things. FairTrade is instead a well marketed idea, and in the words of Hugo Weaving “ideas are bulletproof”. As consumers in the first-world, bulletproof-ness is not frequently on our list of needed features in a food product, but an ethical responsibility to sustainability is (along with a small price tag). Fundamentally FairTrade is the idea that with consumer awareness we can leverage our collective buying power to positively change the implications of our consumption outside of the first-world. As such FairTrade is marketed as “healthy and modern” not because it is important how we consider it, only that we consider it at all. Ironically its ultimate goal is to not be needed, for there to not be a single green, blue and black sticker anywhere, because each product is expected and ensured to be ethically sourced.
Sadly World Fair Trade Day passed by relatively unnoticed on Saturday, beginning a festival fortnight of events organised by Moral Fairground, a local FairTrade advocacy group. To immerse myself in the atmosphere I visited a small show dedicated to promoting the variety of FairTrade products and encourage businesses to participate. I can only presume this was the trendiest area in the CBD given the well-dressed passers-by taking photos of the stunning graffiti and the beautiful, hidden-away, oh-so-Melbourne cafe that was hosting; however the show floor was nearly empty. The stalls were arranged with no-one to staff them, and the one brave businessman who stumbled into the array of flyers quickly bolted once his fresh-roast soy-latte blend was ready. And whilst the beans that made it had been carefully sourced to provide a farmer’s family in Colombia with a fair wage to live on, is the choice to support them as valuable if it is not a conscious one?
Susanna Bevilacqua, founder of Moral Fairground and key organiser of the ongoing events, says “as consumers we always have the choice”. After a personal experience witnessing the poverty of many farmers in South-East Asia Susanna founded the group in 2009. She insists “we have the power to make change”, and whilst individual purchasing power may seem like a drop in the financial ocean, we are able to put our money where our mouth is.
It is unfair to say this fortnight is only full of such small events, also featuring stalls and informational classes and lectures for anyone interested there is an equal focus on consumers and businesses alike to “grow awareness” of how the system works. Whilst it appears that there is a ‘premium’ associated with FairTrade goods, the actual sale cost is entirely decided by the wholesaler of the good. With FairTrade International acting as an accreditor of producers and businesses it is able to guarantee a steady price and income to farmers who would otherwise not be able to compete with many mass produced goods today. “Even within FairTrade there are a variety of prices … but instead of a $200 markup on a t-shirt FairTrade ensures the distribution is far more even.” This system places many small business and their end consumers in the same boat, where FairTrade doesn’t represent a price point but a style of doing business in increasingly diverse industries.
Fundamentally we are all consumers to a degree, and there are so many steps detaching us from the implications of our consumption. “We tend to forget” says Susanna Bevilacqua, “something happens to push an issue into our minds before we go back to our habits.” No-one willingly short-changes those in poverty, so it is unusual to consider we unwillingly do it idly. Fairtrade International isn’t a business, it is a non-profit style of business; through awareness we can make it a standard and remove that too-rarely-seen sticker forever