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Book club: Unfair Trade

Finbarr Bermingham enjoys an eye-opening exposé of supposedly clean business practices

Book club unfair trade

Unfair Trade

Conor Woodman

Random House, 2011

As the economy threatens to crumble in around them, politicians have been falling over each other to become the voice of “responsible capitalismâ€￾, with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband preaching a return to a “moral economyâ€￾ (neither, however, have specified when such a thing ever existed in the first place, nor given much indication that they know how to get there). The British public seems to be listening. In 2011, sales of Fairtrade-certified goods topped £1.3 billion - a rise of 12 per cent on 2010 - which is no mean feat, considering the the problems faced by many other parts of the retail sector. Everywhere you go, shelves are stacked with Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance-certified produce, people are sipping hot drinks made using “ethically sourcedâ€￾ ingredients and wearing “eco-friendlyâ€￾ jumpers. But how many people actually know what these terms mean?

A few years ago, Conor Woodman was sitting on a train, enjoying a coffee, the labelling of which promised that by buying the product, he would “enhance the lives of the villagers of Busamanga, Ugandaâ€￾. This made Conor feel good, which in turn made him feel very uncomfortable. “A second later,â€￾ he reasoned, “I questioned whether making me feel better about myself was quite the intention of the scheme when it was set up.â€￾ Feeling that a billion-pound industry shouldn't be shrouded in ambiguity, he decided to shed some light on the supply chains that provide the supposedly ethical goods we use and consume every day. Unfair Trade is a series of despatches from the Fairtrade coalface.

The lasting impression the book leaves is that ethical business is, in the vast majority of instances, a PR stunt. Satisfying the criteria to brandish the Fairtrade logo is relatively easy and does little to improve the circumstances of those at the bottom of the supply chain. Take the situation of Cadbury, discussed in the chapter entitled Keen to be green. In order to secure accreditation from the Fairtrade Foundation, Cadbury had to agree to source cocoa for no less than $1,600 (about £1,000) per tonne. At the time of writing, the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) daily price for a tonne of cocoa is about £1,500 (14 March). So by signing up to Fairtrade principles, companies pledge to pay just 66.6 per cent of the going rate for a tonne of cocoa. The Cadbury Cocoa Partnership, which predates Fairtrade, has contributed £45 million to cocoa-growing communities in the space of a decade, which Woodman argues is a far greater contribution to the developing world.

Woodman also argues that companies are all too quick to turn a blind eye, pleading ignorance as to the source of their raw materials. In Nicaragua, there are towns full of young men, crippled by the bends contracted after diving, untrained and massively under-equipped to catch lobsters by hand. The Big Red Lobster Company, an American chain of eateries which sources stock from the area, promises customers that it doesn't stock hand-caught lobsters, but it's impossible to know how they've been caught once they've been brought to market. Experts estimate, though, that 50 per cent of the world's harvest are hand-caught. Companies buying the lobsters, argues Woodman, should be investing in the training and equipment needed by those on the supply frontline, rather than perpetuating the myth that they're not caught by hand.

Throughout the book, there are instances of misspent philanthropy. In exchange for permission to grow massive rubber plantations, China built a shiny new national stadium in Laos, now a white elephant on the horizon while the local farmers struggle to earn a living. Across Africa, well-meaning NGOs have constructed schools and water wells without providing the locals with the tools needed to operate and maintain them. They're left to decay, shrines to the ethical naivety that Woodman finds to be rife in boardrooms around the world. Organisations want to be seen as being ethical, but are less keen to commit to ensuring what they've signed up for actually makes a difference.

To his credit, Woodman's tone is measured throughout. He's not an anti-capitalist and highlights a number of firms who are operating truly ethical businesses and making money out of it to boot (the most notable examples include Green and Black's, Olam, Ethical Addictions and Rare Teas). The book is simply written, low on inflammatory language: Woodman is keen to let his research do the talking, and it does. In the year he spent investigating, he travelled to five different continents. Rather than observing from the periphery, he threw himself down Congolese mines, into Nicaraguan waters and among Afghan poppy-field raids. He has earned the authority to pass comment on a sector of UK industry which is widely misunderstood. His is a voice we should all listen to.

A number of years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Brown and Forrest smokery in Somerset (which provides stock to such restaurants as the Caprice group and Fortnum & Mason) to interview its owner, Jesse Pattison. “I don't jump on the organic bandwagon, the local bandwagon or the Fairtrade bandwagon,â€￾ he told me. His methodology was simple: he visited farms, found the ones which operated in a way that matched his own ethical standards, and took them on as suppliers. Of course, we don't all have the luxury of visiting the source of the products we purchase, but we all have the capacity to pose the question: am I buying this to satisfy my conscience, or to help change the life of someone less fortunate than I?