Debate and Discussion: Fairtrade - Rehearse our scripts!

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on 28 January, 2005 - 5:44

I’m convinced by Paul Hampton’s argument about the ineffectiveness of Fairtrade as a way to tackle sweatshops (Solidarity, 3/64).

I also find the Fairtrade approach distasteful: it emphasises what is different between people in the developed world and people in the third world over what we have in common. From our end, it sounds like “what can I, who have so much (including a fearful chocolate addiction), do for you, who have so little (no shoes on your feet, no roof over your head, and dirty, illiterate children)?”

And in doing that it gives a fundamentally false picture of most people’s actual experience.

While some charities can profitably appeal to a small number of guilty-feeling, middle-class people, most people in the developed world simply don’t feel like they have much consumer “power” at all, they are just trying to meet their needs.

That in Britain nowadays we are more or less able to do that — meet our needs — and even have disposable income — has been the fruit of trade union struggle. And trade union struggle is what third world workers are engaging in now in order to get their needs met.

So, all in all, developed and third world, much more unites us than divides us.

However, No Sweat activists have got to rehearse their scripts well in order to make arguments like this, or they risk pouring water on people’s enthusiasm to change the world.

Fairtrade has a lot more product recognition than supporting workers’ struggles, and we need to be sensitive to that. We live in a society where most people have never seen a strike, and have no inkling how the word Labour got into “New Labour”. It’s also a society where, for many, shopping is the most life-affirming thing you can do.

It’s common when you’re running a No Sweat stall to have someone eagerly rush up, insisting that you point them to the nearest sweat-free trainer shop. We have to be very careful not to come over Eeyore-like, telling them “there’s no such thing as sweat-free, the manufacturers are all as bad as each other”; and “but while you’re here, you can sign my petition to support the workers at the XYZ trainer factory in Indonesia” has to be said with a great deal of panache to get people coming back for more.

Vicki Morris, London

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