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We go bananas for Fairtrade


Theodore Stone discusses all things ethical and sustainable with Chief Executive of Fairtrade International and Exeter alumni Harriet Lamb.

During a career that has spanned over 13 years, Harriet Lamb, Chief Executive of Fairtrade, has overseen the ethical sourcing sphere skyrocket. Fairtrade, founded as a grassroots movement, has grown into an international brand, with revenues of over £1.5 billion being accumulated in 2012. But, for Lamb, the measure of Fairtrade’s success rests upon one very simple goal; to make sure that farms in the developing world get a fair deal.

Sitting in one of the Forum’s many seminar rooms, I’m struck by just how approachable Harriet Lamb is. It’s clear that she has made the Fairtrade mission her life, and her sheer enthusiasm is proof of just how much she believes in it.

We begin the interview with a plea for a quick explanation on Fairtrade and its impact. To put it simply, those products (be it anything from bananas to chocolate) with “the cheery blue-and-green Fairtrade mark on it” certifies that the company you’re buying from has ensured that the farmers who grow the products receive a fair price. Covering the cost to grow their crops and earn “a little bit extra which they can invest in building a better future.”

This wasn’t always a universally acknowledged idea; Harriet Lamb admits that many were sceptical when they first heard about it. “Many people just laughed at us. They said, ‘you’ll never make it work. The public will never pay more for their goods, they only care about cost.’”

Of course, those that laughed soon found themselves outnumbered by those that saw potential in the brand.

What transformed Fairtrade was the actions of the millions of people who organised themselves into what are now known as ‘Fairtrade’ towns/ schools/faith groups and so on. These are collectives who wish to support the Fairtrade agenda, and thus are determined to buy Fairtrade wherever they can.”

Exeter is itself a Fairtrade University and Lamb urges us all to “make sure that we have that long-term commitment” to ethical sourcing. She singles out AMT Coffee as “one of the pioneers and stalwarts of Fairtrade,” before asking about the feasibility of buying some of their chocolate after the interview.

She also ensures that I take note of ‘Fairtrade Fortnight,’ which runs from the 23 February to 8 March, where “the whole country unites to celebrate Fairtrade. You’ll often find local supermarkets, or the Oxfam store, or really wherever you go stocks Fairtrade goods. And the townspeople, or the student group, will hopefully do something special to put the attention on it.”

However, there are always going to be potholes. “Maybe [stores] couldn’t get Fairtrade orange juice, or they couldn’t get Fairtrade nuts,” so it is up to the rest of the public to “raise awareness, due to the changing population.”

Lamb believes there are several steps in ethical fairtrade living. First, you need to promote Fairtrade, then talk to your friends and colleagues, and then take part in community activities in order to make those around you more aware of the Fairtrade brand. “You could talk about existing products that are more widely available, that being bananas and chocolate, or you could discuss the latest international campaign, Fairtrade Gold.”

She jokes that, “obviously most of us might not buy quite as much gold as we buy bananas, especially on a student budget, but it gives you an excuse to talk to the jewelers in the town,” but reaffirms that it is “yet another reason to champion Fairtrade and our products.”

Despite having worked at Fairtrade for almost two decades, Lamb says, “I’ve never been as shocked as when I met the gold miners.” “It’s completely shocking to see the miners going underground. They have no protection at all; they just dig holes in the ground. They go down, there’s no wood to hold the mud back, so if it rains, the pits collapse and they die. They don’t have hard hats, they don’t have boots and they’ve been getting less than a dollar a day, bringing up gold.”

“After that it’s a very long process, where women sit in the sun breaking the rocks, and then you get the dust.You mix the dust with mercury, and they may sometimes have only one glove. The mercury then attracts the gold dust, giving you a globule, which contains the gold, so you’re going to want to burn off the mercury to get the gold. They’re just doing this in the open where there are kids and pregnant women. Mercury will make you go mad. I have never seen people looking as ill, and it’s all because they’re exposed to the mercury.

There’s a machine that you can buy for about £150 that would contain those vapours, but they don’t have £150. If you’re on a dollar a day you’re not feeding your family, let along saving. We’re determined to see if we can put the spotlight on the sector in order to raise awareness about the importance of driving change, as well as that of the miners who can sell through Fairtrade terms.”

There is, however, one final item that Fairtrade hopes to take on, and that is what Harriet Lamb describes as the “hourglass economy.” “It’s where you have millions of small holders selling to literally a handful of companies who are selling to millions of consumers, so you have, for example, 75 per cent of the banana trade controlled by five companies – coffee and cocoa and sugar, you’ve only got a handful buying all of it in the world.

This concentration of power means that the local farmers responsible for growing the crops are simply being denied a profit.”

So what can we do? The answer is simple: pressure. Regardless of what people say about campaigning being a waste of time, one thing that Fairtrade has done is that they have firmly shown the world is that this isn’t the case.

“Public pressure does work; I think that that is the biggest message of Fairtrade,” says Lamb. “Even if you feel that no one listens to us, no one cares, remember that we work in Fairtrade with all of those companies and the only reason that it works for us is because of public pressure.” In short, it works.

Lamb claims that there is “absolutely no doubt” that public pressure shifts companies’ agendas. “It’s not that we win all of the time and everything is perfect, it’s a million miles from that, but it works. I think that we need to be putting that pressure on companies, and on governments, now so that they can really play their part to address this imbalance of power in global trade.”

Theo Stone

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