8 questions to Samuel Poos on fair trade trends

Benoit Dupont
25 September 2019
[INTERVIEW] As Fair Trade Week approaches, Glo.be met Samuel Poos, Coordinator of the Trade for Development Centre (TDC), to ask him a few questions about the current trends in this very specific sector.
 
Samuek Poos
Samuel Poos

 

How do you see the current trends in fair trade?

The development of Belgian and European fair trade products (milk, fruit, cereals, meat, etc.) is one of the major current trends.  Since 2009, this phenomenon has been gaining ground following the crises with which farmers continue to be faced, in particular dairy farmers. The price of conventional (non-organic) milk in 2018 was, on average, 34.27€ for 100 litres whereas the production costs, if we include a salary for the farmer, represented about 40 to 45€ for 100 litres. The TDC is less concerned because there is no link with southern countries. But we did occasionally offer our expertise to the Collège des Producteurs (which coordinates negotiations by agricultural sector) in order to develop a "fair price" label for farmers.  There are also many other initiatives. For example, the solidarity-based brand Fairebel, which brings together 500 Belgian farmers, offers, among other things, semi-skilled milk, chocolate-flavoured milk (sadly without free trade cocoa), butter, and different ice-creams. Oxfam Magasins du Monde (Oxfam Worldshops) also sell 'northern' fair trade products: beer, for example. The Fairtrade label does not apply to products made here.
 

 

Lait Fairbel

 

From now on, the fair trade approach should also apply to farmers here, in order to obtain a sustainable agricultural model that respects the raw materials, farmers, and consumers. Indeed, consumers are very favourable to this. According to the 2018 fair trade barometer published by the TDC, 62% of people living in Belgium believe that fair trade should also concern the products of Belgian and European farmers.

Another trend to be greatly encouraged is the extension of the fair trade product range. We all know Fairtrade bananas, coffee and chocolate, but what about Fairphone, cosmetics... and even condoms or tourism? Here, the TDC plays a role in promoting the diversity of players and products. This year, we will be working on ethical sport shoes, "slow fashion", etc. We have also promoted fairtrade gold. 17 Belgian jewellers work with fairtrade gold. It is less known and it is our role to make it known.

Another significant event: ALDI, a hard discounter, has become the largest retailer of Fairtrade certified products with a 16% market share in 2018. Fair trade products are now sold mainly in supermarkets, apparently to the detriment of the pioneers and long-standing players, such as specialist stores (Oxfam and others). Yet the philosophy is clearly not the same: at Oxfam, all the benefits are invested in the economic activity or in permanent educational work. This raises the question of the positioning of these traditional players: how can they continue to be at the forefront of fair trade?

What is the ‘Trade for Development Centre’?

 

The Trade for Development Centre is a programme by Enabel, the Belgian development agency. It is a programme that promotes and supports fair and sustainable trade. Our actions target entrepreneurs in southern countries. We coach them in marketing, financial and organisational management. We work in certain partner countries of Belgian Development Cooperation, but also in Ghana and Ivory Coast, leading cocoa/chocolate producers.

We also intervene in Belgium: with information campaigns for consumers, public authorities, even businesses, that focus on fair or ethical trade with the highlight of the year being the Fair Trade Week.

Among new trends are ‘Bean to bar’ and ‘Slow Flowers’. What are these?

These are initiatives that go further than fair trade on certain aspects.

The production process from the cocoa bean to the chocolate bar most of the time requires many intermediate steps involving major companies. However, today, more and more chocolate makers around the world want to take charge of the entire process themselves. Their raw material is not the chocolate delivered by the factories in large vats in liquid form, but the cocoa beans that they themselves are going to select in southern countries.

Concerning ‘Slow Flowers’: should we choose between Fairtrade roses grown in Kenya, or roses grown in greenhouses in the Netherlands? All have a large ecological footprint: one because they are imported by plane and use a great deal of water and chemicals; the other because their production requires the greenhouses to be heated. The Slow Flowers movement focuses on the local supply of flowers, the fact that these are seasonal flowers and the notion of a connection with nature. However, it is clear that, for the moment, the local production of flowers does not meet the current needs of the Belgian market.

 

What is the link between fair trade and organic and local products?

Local products (short circuits) and organic products coexist with the fair trade sector. These trends are converging towards the more responsible consumption of products made here and products imported from southern countries. However, certain fair trade products are not organic and inversely. But, increasingly, synergies are being sought between organic and fair trade products. In commercial terms, there is an interest in doing this. Nowadays, more than 65% of fair trade food products are organic certified. And, as for organic farming, fair trade forbids the use of GM foods.

Chocolate is greatly appreciated in Belgium. A partnership for a more sustainable Belgian chocolate sector has been set up. Does the TDC play a role in this partnership?

The TDC was involved in studying the objectives of the ‘Beyond Chocolate’ initiative. We worked on it with NGOs, retailers, public authorities, etc. We are satisfied with the work achieved which is very ambitious: one of the objectives is to achieve a living income for cocoa farmers by 2030. It goes much further than what is done in other countries. Currently, even fair trade does not guarantee this living income. It remains difficult, for example in Ivory Coast, to live from cocoa alone. At the moment, the TDC is coaching 9 cocoa cooperatives in Ivory Coast in marketing and business management.

 

The textile sector is a very large sector that does not have a very good reputation. It is very polluting. Workers endure difficult conditions. What is the situation?

In this sector, the raw material, for example cotton, can be awarded a "fair" label. This means that cotton farmers work in conditions that meet the label's standards. But the chain is long: when the raw material is processed in workshops, you leave the field of fair trade and enter that of corporate social responsibility. For example, the Fair Wear Foundation works on the transparency of the textile sector. Leading Belgian brands are members of it: JBC and Bel & Bo, for example.

Alexander De Croo in a JBC store during Fair Trade Week 2017
© TDC

Are fair trade labels reliable? Do they guarantee the entire production chain, from the field to the shop? Do they need to be improved?

There are many labels. Some stand out from the others: Fairtrade, for example, is the best known and the most present on the Belgian market. Labels are reliable. But there is always room for improvement. According to Fairtrade Belgium, fair trade is a "journey". It is no longer a "certification" as for organic: a product is organic or not. Fair trade focuses on a living income for farmers, which is not always the case today. It is necessary to work on the diversification of crops, productivity, price, etc.

Furthermore, labels do not certify the entire production chain. For example, they do not certify that the carrier or distributor work in fair conditions.
One of the criteria of fair trade is banning child labour. Here again, it is impossible for a label to verify that there are no children working in fields. It is impossible to guarantee it 100%. But, as soon as a case is noted, corrective measures are taken.

 

Panneau "FAIR TRADE ON BOARD"

The notion of "fair trade"

 

Fair trade arose from the realisation that differences in wealth between rich and poor populations were continuing to increase and a wish to implement a fairer form of trade. Fair trade offers to change the way in which we trade by applying more income-generating prices and decent working conditions for farmers, craftsmen and workers.

Are consumers and politicians receptive to fair trade? Are sales increasing?

A large majority (92%) of the public know what fair trade means. The Fairtrade label is known and enjoys a very good image. But, curiously, people do not feel all that concerned about it when making purchases. There is a great deal of work to be done on this. A recent opinion poll by the TDC shows that consumers mainly associate responsible consumption with buying seasonal and local produce, and recycling and reducing waste. Fair products only come later in the order of priorities.

Despite everything, the volume of fair product sales is increasing, especially for a few product categories, such as coffee, cocoa/chocolate, and bananas. One banana out of five sold in Belgium has the Fairtrade label. In 2018, the total volume of Fairtrade products rose by 24%. This can be explained by an increase in the offer, especially among volume retailers.

In Belgium, the political world is relatively favourable to fair trade. In 2017, the federal parliament voted a resolution on fair trade and its promotion during the Fair Trade Week. The aim is to make Belgium the country of fair trade by the end of 2020.

 

You organise the Fair Trade Week. What activities are planned this year? Do you think that this week has a positive impact?

In order to make Belgium the country of fair trade, about 200 local events are organised each year throughout Belgium: product tasting, debates, competitions, exchange of good practices, and more. This year, we will receive cocoa farmers, Moroccan women who make argan oil, Sri Lankan companies that sell fair and organic products, etc. This creates a contact with the consumer and farmer-consumer exchanges. The impact is positive: there is a high level of recognition for fair trade and this type of event acts as a reminder that helps to maintain this high level of awareness. Do not hesitate to consult the programme for the Fair Trade Week that we be held from 2 to 12 October 2019.

 

Read also Building a fairer world thanks to fair trade

 
Cocoa drying
© TDC

Some figures on fair trade

 

  • Global sales for Fairtrade products increased by 8% to reach almost €8.5 billion in 2017 (subsidies estimated to be €178 million for farmers' organisations and for workers).
  • In 2017, each person living in Belgium consumed on average €13.57 of fair trade products, namely + 6.8% compared to 2016.
  • In 2018, Fairtrade label products increased by 24%.
  • 1 banana out of 5 was Fairtrade in 2018, but coffee and chocolate do not yet reach 5%.
  • 1,500 Fairtrade certified products are available on the Belgian market.
  • 90% of Belgians declare having already heard about fair trade, and 62% believe that fair trade should concern the products of Belgian and European farmers.
  • 58% of shoppers go to the supermarket to buy their fair trade products, and to a lesser extent, to specialist stores (Oxfam - Magasins du monde).
Fair trade Chocolate
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