Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Inspiring Book

Something that inspired me this month, and an action I have taken which I hope will inspire others.
*Having offered to prepare something for the July session, I have decided to play my Joker on this item. Since this piece is too long to be read in the session, I'd like if I may to publish the whole text here, as a context for a short and hopefully useful activity in the session.

Helen Dymond

There was a book in the good old 1960's or was it the 70's, a hip guide to American students swanning around in their gap year, called 'Europe on Five Dollars a Day'. Five dollars a day? WOW! How could such thrift be attained? It was clever, inflation-busting, quaintly alternative. A new book, '50 Reasons to Buy Fair Trade' by Miles Litvinoff and John Madeley (Pluto Press, tells me that half a century later in 2007, "throughout the developing world people are working in poor countries for less than a dollar a day to make goods such as clothes and toys for the Western world."

They are forced into it by the rock bottom prices agreed by the world agriculture markets for the kind of crops their climates and soils will allow them to grow. With the international coffee agreement's collapse in 1989, for many farmers prices fellow below the cost of production. The impact on societies has been and continues to be disastrous: "social unrest, robberies, suicides, debt, children withdrawn from school by their parents; in Colombia and Haiti growers turning in desperation to illegal drugs cultivation. In Nicaragua, thousands of coffee workers held a 'March of the Hungry' to the capital in mid-2003, during which fourteen of the marchers are said to have died, during the march, of starvation. " Equally devestating in its effects, the world banana market worth £5 billion is dominated by a cartel consisting of a mere five companies.

But '50 Reasons' does't set out to scold; it invites us to celebrate the burgeoning of the Fair Trade movement, to join a damn good party that is going on and is here to stay It's this positive energy that makes the book inspiring; and incidentally it cleared up my puzzlement as to why I had not enjoyed Starhawk's 'Webs of Power' as much I had expected to: Starhawk seemed so much preoccupied with Our Action, Our Vision, Our struggle - whereas this book is all about Them. It is meticulously researched and packed full of useful information about what Fair Trade is, how it helps producers to a fair and stable income, where to find FT products; but perhaps its greatest achievement is that it gives a small cast of farmers a published voice, lets them speak for themselves.

It provides just the global context we need to make sense of what is happening in our own locality, and has prompted me to conduct a small, totally unscientific survey of my two local superstores; Sainsbury's at Ladbroke Grove and at Willesden, to explore Sainbsury's claim that it supports Fair Trade. I also wanted to answer some more uncomfortable questions closer to home: why don't I, the barely-reconstructed housewife, buy more than a few FT products? Is it because of my ignorance of the range on offer? A suspicion that they will be more expensive than non-FT? Or it is due to lack of visibility, a failed opportunity to highlight the products like the sweets which are always in your face at the checkout counter? (I am told Sainsbury's recently had a 'Fair Trade Fortnight' , but none of my neighbours seem to have noticed it).

Not that I am advocating supermarket shopping, given the environmental impact of import air-miles, excess packaging and general swamping of small producers. But the plain fact is that the vast majority of shoppers patronise supermarkets, so there should be some attempt to understand what is going on there. Paradoxically a much wider range of FT can be found there than in the average small retailer, and those who already patronise FT- specialist shops/farmers'markets need no conversion. Having obtained printouts of what FT goods are offered in these two stores, I made some comparisons between them, checked prices against the Online Shopping list and came up with some suirprising findings, of which I give just a sample here.

'50 Reasons' tells me that there are now over 2,000 FT certified products on the market, but Sainsbury's Online Shopping lists only 68 - so the first question is, why so few? And apart from cleaning cloths at Willesden, none of the non-food items are listed. There seems no consistent Buying policy either: Willesden carries only 27 items, of which 13 are not listed at Ladbroke Grove, while Ladborke Grove carries 30, of which 18 are not available at Willesden. This seems fairly chaotic, but the most glaring omission is that, having been assured by the Customer Care Service that "all Sainsbury's bananas are Fair Trade", FT bananas are not listed at all at Ladbroke Grove! I have informed Head Office of this fact and the person I spoke to sounded genuinely shocked.

The majority of products are beverages, coffees, teas and wines. At Ladbroke Grove fresh fruit FT products are grapes, pineapples and mangoes, whereas Willesden, a store with a significantly smaller clientele, manages to sell all those plus oranges and bananas. Ladbroke Grove Sainsbury's, a significant shopping mecca in this part of London boasting a bus terminus, and the Congestion Charge Extension Zone was shifted, after huge local protests, a few metres south of the Harrow Road so as to exclude the store, has a Coffee Shop which sells FT chocolate muffins and chocolate brownies - so why aren't these available on the shelves?

Thebiggest surprise are the prices. There is a perception that FT goods are likely to be more expensive, as organic products are, although the big stores can afford to and sometimes do subsidise them. Many FT items turn out to be the same, or cheaper than, non-FT. Fairtrade Teabags 250g cost £1.19, whereas Sainbsury's Green Blend Teabags 250g cost £1.95; Billington's Golden Granulated Sugar 500g sell for 89p, Tate & Lyle Granulated for a whopping £3.85; a pack of 5 Sainbsury's FT oranges are £1.59, while a pack of 5 non-FT oranges are £1.75.

What to do with these admittedly random statistics? I plan to send a report to Sainsbury's outlining my findings and suggesting that the Buying Policy is reviewed and hopefully improved. The range of goods offered could be greatly extended, and promoted as not only socially responsible but better value. And I have a plan to do a small promotion of my own: namely, I am thinking of a pre-Christmas social gathering of our Neighbourhood Watch Group to which everyone will be invited to bring only FT consumables - a sort of Pudding Party with bevvies, chocolate mousse and exotic fruit salad, nuts for those that can eat them, freshly baked biscuits etc. and some small inexpensive Ft gifts for Santa's Sack and prizes for games. It's a small step, as social movements go, but a first, I am resonably sure, in this neck of the woods.

1 comment:

kathryn said...

Helen, this is brilliant. I am humbled that you have taken an issue you are concerned about, done research into the realities of our lives, and now are planning various actions to change it.

I wouldn't call it unscientific research at all - small-scale maybe, but rigorous, comparable and published. I'd really like to know how Sainsburys respond.