Why are foodies turning their backs on Fairtrade: Part 1?

Small-holder walnut in shell

Is there is a growing critique of Fairtrade from the ‘foodie’ end of the market as was highlighted in the Guardian Development recently?

This is not the first time writers have explored this theme. The so-called ‘Direct Trade’ in the coffee industry, as also seen here in Australia, has had airings before, but what of ‘foodies’?

Rather than pose the disillusionment of foodies as a cause of the small fall in UK Fairtrade sales I would explore the opportunity that a growing foodie market represents and how it compliments a Fairtrade business strategy for small-holder farmers.

I suggest foodies have been around since well before Fairtrade grew to its current size. Certainly for the decade since I tried to sell Fairtrade certified products at Speciality Fine Food trade shows. For those that have never been, the sheer diversity and quality at these shows is mind boggling and for a foodie, it’s like being a kid in a toy shop. They are awesome fun but exhausting for the taste buds! Serr Walnuts from ChileWe struggled to find interest in high quality Fairtrade Darjeeling tea or fine Orange Blossom honey. We just couldn’t find UK customers willing to pay a premium for the world’s best walnuts grown by small holders in Chile.

The fact is, most speciality products are not widely distributed, selling through specialist retail or online so few get to supermarkets. Consumer trial and therefore the opportunity of developing scale will, for the most part, be small.

On the other hand, many such brands are the pride and joy of artisan food makers and growers too. The foodie market suits them well. Their food passion is unsurprisingly shared by foodie consumers. Very high quality cannot be mass produced, so it was common to see innovation, combining the feedback from market access, careful product development with the skills of farmers and growers on show at these Fairs each year.

In my experience smallholder farmers (even in developing countries) have always been good at responding to market exposure and they can easily acquire skills to grow amazing quality or taste. All it takes is that market access to begin with. In that sense, this is what the Workshop or Chef Roellinger is doing, providing the information and support for farmers to do better. However, and a critical difference, they neither have the intent nor the resources to develop transformational change at any scale, where the focus is on poverty alleviation, given the number of farmers that grow coffee or any other tropical crop and exist on precarious livelihoods. Product educationThis type of business development work is happening more and more in Fairtrade with the assistance of experts.

I believe if Fairtrade, had targeted it’s business strategy at this small specialist sector of the market 25 years ago it would have failed! We needed scale, both for impact but also to achieve competitive business costs and viable products. But several decades later, in a global billion dollar market, the time is now right for differentiation and we see ‘Direct Trade’ of high quality products and examples of foodie success in Fairtrade too. For instance Fairtrade company Zaytoun sells a wonderful freekah from small farms in Palestine. No doubt there are others, but even here, the cost of certification is prohibitive and for the farmer not the entire solution to better livelihood

Consumer foodies are naturally interested in the story of any product and its provenance so explored Fairtrade and its authenticity. So, many enthusiasts in the food trade also saw an opportunity to emulate the stories of traceability told by Fairtrade and told their own in similar terms. Even sometimes criticising Fairtrade to differentiate their own approach as a positive attribute, perhaps ideologically (not unusual here in Australia) or perhaps just from a business cost or quality perspective.

So what is happening to the foodie market (as the article rightly questions)? It is definitely growing and perhaps now fast outgrowing the ability of Fairtrade to deliver a range of high quality and interesting raw materials or finished products, especially in such a promiscuous category. By this I mean foodies get bored easily. They graze, moving on to the next tasty morsel for excitement! Whilst this is a fascinating aspect of consumer behaviour it is not a fundamental flaw in the Fairtrade paradigm. Of course a product can be ethical without being Fairtrade too! The key issue now is one of Fairtrade capacity to deliver. The same Annual Report highlighted the growing Fairtrade support from upmarket UK supermarket Waitrose; I hope Fairtrade can keep up with demand.

Both opportunities can complement each other providing a more secure livelihood for the small holder farmer. So let’s celebrate the skills and capacity of small scale farmers wherever they grow and whatever they grow. If you are a business, be ethical about product development and your terms of trade. If you want to use the complimentary certification, remember Fairtrade is fundamentally a tool to give market access to those who are marginalised.  If you are a consumer, enjoy your food but I would still urge you never to buy a Fairtrade product if you didn’t like the taste! That is the best feedback a farmer can get.

In the second part of this blog I’ll explore some of the Guardian article content in more detail.



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