Kelly Parsons talks to campaigners, café owners, caterers, councillors and even a visiting Kenyan tea grower, about their experiences of Fairtrade food in the city.
First of all, let’s give ourselves a pat on the back: London is officially the world’s largest Fairtrade city. Twenty-one out of its 33 boroughs have achieved certified status. It’s also home to some of the movement’s most successful organisations and companies, including Twin-trading, the pioneering organisation initially funded by Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council 25 years ago, Divine Chocolate, Cafédirect, and now Liberation nuts. That’s not to mention the many individuals and groups around the city promoting fairly traded foods. Over 1,000 retailers and 600 catering outlets in the capital now sell a range of products carrying the famous Fairtrade mark, including iconic London institutions like the British Library, the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament.
But as with any relationship, there’s a real danger of us getting complacent, particularly in light of the current squeeze on council budgets and consumer purses, says Fairtrade London’s campaign co-ordinator Malcolm Clark. “No borough has yet had its Fairtrade status revoked,” says Malcolm, “but the challenge is to ensure councils don’t withdraw support for financial reasons. There are also some boroughs, like Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster, where there is grassroots support, but the council is the main sticking point to becoming Fairtrade-certified.”
Harrow council has been stuck in Fairtrade limbo for years. Three years ago local supporters persuaded it to pass a resolution in support of Fairtrade, but a change in administration resulted in less interest, and the steering group folded. Now the council is keen to revive the group in time for Fairtrade Fortnight 2011, says lead council member on the Harrow Fairtrade borough campaign, Nana Asante. “Today, everybody wants to be ethical, and pays lip service to justice, but not everyone really believes in it or takes action,” she says, adding that she’s heartened by the way people in the borough have embraced the idea. A campaign has been underway to encourage locals to include Fairtrade items in their shopping, and local businesses to convert.
A borough’s Fairtrade status depends on: the council passing a resolution supporting the cause and agreeing to serve products in meetings, offices and canteens; a range of products being available in shops and served in local cafés and restaurants; and workplaces and community organisations supporting Fairtrade and using products.
One business helping Enfield borough qualify is My Coffee Stop, a café on the platform of Enfield Chase station. Co-owner Karen Mercer hadn’t even heard of Fairtrade until she happened across a leaflet three months before opening her new venture last year. She was sold on the concept instantly, she says, and has since become one of the borough’s most ardent Fairtrade supporters, sitting on its steering group and putting on promotional events for Fairtrade Fortnight. “You wouldn’t believe how far people will travel to support Fairtrade,” says Karen. “We’re meant to be for commuters but people are so drawn they visit us rather than the high street, and I have one customer who came all the way from Chingford to try our tea!” And, she points out, the investment required to take an ethical approach is more about effort than money. “Finding products takes time, because there is no one supplier with everything we need, but financially for each cup of coffee the price difference is less than 1p, which makes you realise what a tiny price it is to pay to support Fairtrade.”
Time, rather than cost, is also the biggest investment for businesses at the other end of the size spectrum, says Giles Burton, hospitality manager for Avenance, caterer for a staff restaurant, 12 kitchens and 37 meeting and dining rooms at City law firm Baker & Mackenzie. “We have gone from one Fairtrade product two years ago to a range of house wines, fruit juices, teas, coffee, bananas, sugar sachets and more, and managing that takes time,” he says, “but people are surprised to hear the products aren’t necessarily more expensive.” The coffee and tea don’t cost any more, neither do coffee beans used by its internal branch of Starbucks, and its Fairtrade orange juice is actually cheaper than non-Fairtrade equivalents it used in the past.
“Large corporations aren’t silly,” he says when asked why the firm is embracing Fairtrade. “They know they have to take action like this now or they’ll lag behind competitors. And as a contract caterer, when we do sales tenders we are increasingly asked about our approach to corporate social responsibility.”
But perhaps the most convincing argument comes from tea grower Andrew Ethuru, board member of social enterprise Cafédirect, and chairman of the Michimikuru tea company in Kenya, which became Fairtrade-certified in 2007. “When I fly to London it makes me happy to see our tea being sold,” he says, “knowing the funds will be ploughed back in to making better tea, by improving our environmental practices and increasing quality controls,” though he is keen to point out that not all Fairtrade organisations reinvest profits, as Cafédirect does.
But, he warns, Londoners shouldn’t assume their work is done – his plans to get other producers involved rely on us keeping up our support, through plenty of quality Fairtrade tea and coffee-drinking. “There is an impression that Fairtrade is a success and has now done its job, but in fact our organisation is selling less than a couple of years ago, mainly because of unscrupulous factories producing machine-picked bulk blended teas in the name of Fairtrade.” His advice: look beyond the label and go by taste. If you like it, buy more. “I love drinking our tea, if you have ten cups a day you will be jumping up and down in good health, but I can’t drink it all, so I’m happy for the people of London to buy and enjoy the rest!”
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