Q&A with Harriet Lamb

Harriet LambAs part of Fairtrade Fortnight 2010, Harriet Lamb, executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation, answered Mumsnetters' questions about reasons to buy Fairtrade and who the foundation supports.

Harriet, dubbed "eco queen" by Cosmopolitan mag, began her Fairtrade 'journey' when she landed the job of banana coordinator at the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation in Bonn in 1997 and helped to arrange the first shipment of Fairtrade bananas to Britain.

Now, she heads up a 79-strong team at the Fairtrade Foundation, which has certified more than 3,000 products, including coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, bananas, grapes, pineapples, mangoes, avocados, lemons, coconuts, honey, jams, rice, herbs and spices, wine, flowers, clothing and even footballs.

Farmers | Certification | Nestle | Clothing | Premium prices | Products | Awareness | Progress | Short-term goals



Q. abride: How is Fairtrade encouraging individual farmers and manufacturers to become larger organisations in their own right, rather than through cooperatives?

A. HarrietLamb: The Fairtrade system is focused on smallholders, and workers in plantations. The only way that smallholders, who often have tiny plots, can improve their position is by coming together into organisations – either cooperatives or associations of some kind. It is through such organisation that the farmers can start to export directly, rather than just selling to middlemen, or to invest in improving productivity, or in their communities. It is also by being organised that they can access credit, for example, which is often farmers' top priority, or buy inputs together so making them more affordable. Organisations are small village co-ops of 50 members while others are much larger ranging right through to a national level co-operative union with 60 co-ops and 60,000+ individual members.

In their groups, members can then decide how to invest the additional income from Fairtrade (through the minimum price and additional premium). For example, the Gumutindo Coffee Co-operative in Uganda has acquired its own office space with processing and warehouse facilities so that apart from the final milling stage, it carries out all processes from farm to export, and therefore increases the co-op's income. Gumutindo has also invested in supporting conversion to organic certified coffee in the form of training and certification costs. As well as promoting more sustainable farming methods, this has expanded market options and allowed farmers to earn additional premiums for their coffee.

Fairtrade Foundation logoGumutindo recently opened the organisation's first cupping lab, where farmers can roast their own coffee beans. This is very empowering as many farmers had never tasted their own coffee before. The cupping lab enables farmers to check the quality of their coffee and be sure they are providing buyers with exactly what they want. They have also invested in building and renovating village-level coffee warehouses and other co-op premises and provide working capital to reduce the need for expensive loans.

None of this would be possible if the farmers were not organised. We do however, also work with plantations, in which case the workers must be organised and the plantation must meet a range of core labour standards.

Q. GreenMonkies: For those who like proper coffee, Has Bean sell coffee bought direct from the growers, and pay above Fairtrade prices. And here's another one for Harriet, do you look after the interests of British farmers and producers as well, or just Third World ones? I ask this as British farming is being squeezed into oblivion by un-profitable prices etc. Just a thought...

A. HarrietLamb: The Fairtrade Foundation recognises that many farmers in the UK face similar issues to farmers elsewhere. We therefore support the promotion of sustainable production for UK farmers but our specific role will continue to be supporting farmers from the developing world. Fairtrade isn't in competition with UK farmers and the purchase of locally produced and Fairtrade products are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Fairtrade focuses by and large on tropical agricultural products such as coffee and bananas that can't be grown in temperate climates or products that can't be grown in sufficient quantities in the EU eg grapes and oranges


Q. EmmaBA: Could you please explain to us the process by which a product gets its Fair-trade status? Presumably if all the qualifying boxes are ticked, you award Fair-trade status regardless of other aspects of the company's operations?

A. HarrietLamb: The Fairtrade certification system does indeed work product by product. In order for a company to use the Fairtrade Mark, they must sign a legal agreement with the Fairtrade Foundation. They must demonstrate that all ingredients in the product that can be Fairtrade have been sourced under Fairtrade trading conditions, including payment to the growers of at least the published Fairtrade minimum price and the Fairtrade premium (the additional sum of money for community projects). The company must disclose full supply chain details so that the Fairtrade Foundation can ensure that every part of the chain is registered in the Fairtrade system. This is so we can check that no-one is cheating along the way. We also ensure that companies don't over-claim, or use misleading statements about their engagement with Fairtrade.Finally, companies must open their books so we can audit them on a yearly basis to make sure they are meeting all the Fairtrade Standards for each product. However, it should be clear that the Fairtrade Mark on a company's product is not an endorsement of that company or of its whole business and employment practices. It is only a guarantee that the Fairtrade standards have been met on that one product.

But beyond the certification, the Fairtrade movement has deeper aims. It is a citizens' movement for change, connecting growers with the public here. So we are always encouraging companies to engage more and more seriously with Fairtrade. We want them to commit to a different way of trading, which puts producers first, not last. That is our contribution to social change, which is obviously one part of a wider movement. We recognise the key role that other organisations play in focusing on other social and environmental issues and encouraging companies to change.

Q. nighbynight: We have got fresh roses in our local supermarket that are marked Fairtrade from Kenya. But aren't they just the products of big, commercial farms owned by former settlers? There's no guarantee that Kenyans working to harvest them, for example, are paid a fair wage.

A. HarrietLamb: Fairtrade-certified farms have to meet Fairtrade standards based on recognised international standards such as the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). They include the right to join a trade union and negotiate with the employer – this is an important way of empowering workers to improve their working conditions, there must be no discrimination on the grounds of religion, gender, race etc and a ban on forced and child labour. Workers must have fair conditions of employment, and this includes payment of wages in line with or exceeding national laws and agreements on minimum wages. This is an entry-level requirement and companies must develop longer-term plans to ensure wages are increased to ‘living wage' levels above the regional average and official minimum.

Harriet Lamb with biscuitsUndoubtedly, when farms have become Fairtrade certified they have seen sometimes dramatic improvements in conditions. As a result, some farms have recognised trades unions for the first time, have introduced generous maternity rights and increased pay levels. The workers also receive the premium which they have invested in a range of programmes from improving local schools to health centres.

I visited one farm (owned by the way by a Kenyan) where the worker who leads the Joint Body told me that me had been a smallholder. But the rains kept failing so he couldn't feed his family. In the end, he said, he couldn't go on not knowing if he would or wouldn't be able to put food on the table. So he was pleased to get a job on the farm and, as a natural leader, is now involved in major social projects investing the Fairtrade premium.

But there is also a long, long way to go to improve livelihoods for the workers much further, which is why it is so important that more people buy Fairtrade roses.


Q. FromGirders: I think Faritrade is a great system, and I buy Fairtrade wherever I can, even if it costs a little more. But please tell me how KitKats, made by Nestle can deserve a Fairtrade award / symbol.

Q. shallishanti: I get that Nestle have fulfilled the conditions and can't be denied the FT mark for the four-finger Kit Kat, but the Fairtrade Foundation doesn't have to give then free publicity- they are still subject to boycott because of their formula marketing. As someone who tries to promote FT it's hard to constantly be having conversations about 'well, yes they are FT but even so, there are a load of other issues to consider...'

Q. hunkermunker: Do you boycott Nestle, Harriet? If not, why not?

Q. GreenMonkies: Do you realise just how much credibility the Fair Trade mark has lost since it was granted to Nestle for it's Partners coffee and now Kitkat? Their record of child labour (chocolate production), environmental destruction (spring water harvesting) and dubious Union activity as well as their relentless and agressive infringement of international laws and codes regarding infant formula makes them totally unsuitable for inclusion in any Fair Trade projects.

And isn't having one or two products "Fairtrade" basically an admission that all the other products in a companies range are ripping off producers?

A. HarrietLamb: I do get how some people feel about this one. But do you know that on the other hand, people are buying one billion Kit-Kats every year! That's a lot of people - and a lot of cocoa and sugar. And you can be sure those farmers need Fairtrade. Among the cocoa farmers in one cooperative selling to Kit Kat, a shocking 95% of their members are illiterate. They want their kids to learn to read and write, but Cote d'Ivoire is a troubled country, coming out of a conflict with few resources and a 50 per cent of people living on less than $2 a day. So it is vital that they earn more for their cocao. With their first Fairtrade premiums, Kavokiva paid for adult education classes, for school building, they built a health centre and an ambulance and reckon to have saved thirty lives last year. But until now, they were only selling small volumes of their cocoa on Fairtrade terms and they badly needed more sales. That is what Kit Kat brings them. 

For campaigners and the public here, i think it is a recognition by the company that people care about these issues. They have listened to the public asking for Fairtrade and responded. Not with a small side-line or token gesture. But with their crown-jewels - their biggest bar, Kit Kat. That's is a very serious engagement with Fairtrade. It sends a strong signal to the rest of the cocoa industry. And it will deliver major benefits back to farmers and workers.


Q. madhairday: Do you have plans to make Fairtrade clothing more widely available? A few high street stores have their token Fairtrade ranges consisting of a few t-shirts in unexciting colours; in the main good Fairtrade clothing can only be purchased online and at a pretty high cost. How can we bring it more widely to the high street and more importantly how can we persuade stores to rise above exploitation and embrace Fairtrade ethics?

A. HarrietLamb: I so agree that we need to ensure more companies cotton on to Fairtrade. In fact, it is now five years since the introduction of Fairtrade cotton into the UK market. You are right that it hasnt always been easy at all. Some clothes made with Fairtrade cotton havent always been the right price or style. Which is bad news for the cotton farmers who really need to sell more cotton at fair prices.The best thing everyone can do is: ask for Fairtrade and buy the clothes when you see them. It is nothing more than publci pressure that has put so much Fairtrade food into our shop shelves. Now the fashion stores need to know you care. Then they will invest more in getting Fairtrade in fashion right.

You can also call for Fairtrade cotton to be used in other places too - what about the uniforms at your kids' schools? Or the sheets and towels used in your local hospital, or hotel?

Meanwhile, we'll be doing our bit too. The Fairtrade Foundation now works with over 100 companies and there really are some great clothes out there made with Fairtrade cotton. Emma Watson has a range with People Tree, Lisa Butcher is designing a Fairtrade cotton t-shirt for Long Tall Sally and the Beckhams have designed a Fairtrade cotton t-shirt range for Sports Relief in TK Maxx. Dorothy Perkins are launching a new fashionable collection of Fairtrade cotton t-shirts and blouses. Monsoon are introducing Fairtrade cotton products in their Fusion range. Sainsburys are restyling their TU Fairtrade cotton t-shirts and Tesco has more uniforms using Fairtrade cotton than ever before. Warehouse are introducing a fashionable collection including dresses, boleros, camis and trousers and M&S is looking at more upmarket ranges. So just keep asking...

Premium prices

Q. PlummyDummyMummy: I always buy Fairtrade when choosing bananas, coffee and sugar. However I jib at the rather large premium that is charged for some Fairtrade goods. Paying the farmers a fair price means that we will pay a premium for the result, I get it. But I object to some of that premium enriching the importer at the expense of the farmer - and me! Is there a calculation that represents a fair price premium versus a rip-off for Fairtrade goods?

A. HarrietLamb: The thing to remember is that all companies sourcing Fairtrade goods must pay farmers an agreed Fairtrade minimum price which covers the cost of sustainable production and an additional Fairtrade premium. So it does cost them more to buy Fairtrade - sometimes a lot more when world market prices are very low. Which is why some Fairtrade prices are higher. Sometimes, prices are also higher because the quality is very good, or it is organic too, or they have bought from a very difficult place like the wonderful Palestinian olive oil which is indeed expensive to produce. But the good news is that you can also get very price competitive Fairtrade goods and as it becomes more widely available in larger quantities, it is becoming cheaper. For example, Divine chocolate is very price competitive; the own-label tea or sugar in Sainsburys or Coop is Fairtrade for no extra price and when Tate and Lyle made all their retail sugar Fairtrade they did not put up the price at all. So you can get Fairtrade quite cheaply too if the company decides to pay the whole extra themselves and not pass any on to the consumer.

Unfortunately, because all products are so different - some are processed, some are shipped, some mixed with other ingredients - there is no such calculation. And in fact it is illegal to set consumer prices in this country. But I hope you can shop around until you find the best Fairtrade goodies at the right price for you! One thing you can be sure: a small price difference here can make such a great difference to the producers.  



Q. tatt: Chocolate was the first fair trade product I saw on sale. It put me off fair trade as it "may contain nut traces". Not much use to a family with a child with anaphylactic reactions to nuts and not very ethical to exclude us. Of the 3000 products you say you've certified I reckon to have seen no more than 10 on sale.

A. HarrietLamb: You are right that chocolate was the very first Fairtrade certified product to go on sale and I am sorry that it wasn't any good for you. But there is now such a range for you to choose from including fresh fruit such as bananas, grapes, pineapples, mangoes, avocados, oranges, and lychees. In December we launched Fairtrade Melons from Brazil. The range flowers, cosmetics and cotton clothing are also becoming more available. Of course, you are right that you are not going to see the whole range in one shop ever!

But more and more shops do have a range of their own label Fairtrade products such as tea and coffee and bananas. I would suggest asking your store manager for it to encourage them to stock more. Did you have any ideas about Fairtrade foods you would especially like to find?

Q. nighbynight: To crystallise some more thoughts about Fairtrade...isn't it just used by the supermarkets to salve our middle class consciences, so that we will buy 95% mass produced, GM, weedkiller soaked, exploitative crap, and 5% organic or Fairtrade goods, and we will feel good about that. So from the supermarkets point of view, Fairtrade is a niche that allows them to carry on peddling the crap without us rebelling. Can you comment on this please?

A. HarrietLamb: Fairtrade started as and remains a strong grassroots movement, committed to tackling poverty in trade, with people knocking on supermarket doors and asking them to stock Fairtrade. Because that is where most people do most of their shopping. And because, it needs to be made very easy for the public to play their part in making trade more just. You are right that Fairtrade is about creating change one step at a time, cup of coffee by cup of coffee. We do feel that you cannot create utopia all at once - that will take so very many actions by many different people in many different ways. But the Fairtrade movement is very focused on tackling poverty among producers in developing countries, through a thousand small steps which all add up to a big change. So for example, if all the bananas in Sainsburys and Waitrose are Fairtrade that is not niche at all for those banana farmers; for them it means significant volumes of Fairtrade sales. So what we have achieved already matters greatly for over a million farmers already involved. But you're dead right that we have a very very long way to go. And I hope that box schemes, and health food store and small independents will also offer much more Fairtrade food too.


Q. tinierclanger: I buy Fairtrade where possible and am about to start promoting Fairtrade fortnight at work. I'd really like it if you could point me in the direction of some concrete examples of Fairtrade making a real impact on local economies - so above and beyond just improving things for a small number of individuals. I'd like to be able to give more than just a general woolly liberal 'it's a good thing to do' response to people when they question me about it.

A. HarrietLamb: I hope it goes well at work. It's always good to browse around our website for some concrete examples. There is a summary of research A review of the impact of Fairtrade over the last ten years (Natural Resources Institute, Sept 2009) on our website. 

The example I always use is the Windward Islands, who have sold Fairtrade bananas into the UK for the last ten years. In the Caribbean island of Dominica, Fairtrade has helped to turn around the future of the entire island. Ten years ago, the number of banana farmers had dropped from a once thriving 11,000 to below 1,000 because they could not compete with the cheaper bananas being harvested from vast plantations run by multinationals in Central America. Families had broken up; people had left the island in the hope of emigrating (often illegally) and of finding work elsewhere. Gangs had sprung up, the island's young people were carrying guns and many had turned to growing illegal drugs as a way of making money.

It was at that point that a group of banana farmers got together and formed the Windward Islands Farmers Association (WINFA) and began selling their bananas to UK supermarkets with the Fairtrade Mark.

Their move paid off. With the first round of Fairtrade premium money they created a football and a cricket pitch and set up several youth groups and since then, they have used the Fairtrade funds to install street lighting to act as as a deterrent to gang violence. Farmers have invested in local schools, purchased much-needed sterilizing equipment for the island's hospitals and, for the first time in a long while, felt proud to be bringing development and change to their community. The economic turnaround was such that the Prime Minister of Dominica told the House of Commons Select Committee inquiry into Fairtrade that it had been the saviour of the islands'.

Q. nighbynight: If I am allowed another question... I know quite a lot of people from the third world, and none of them have ever heard of Fairtrade. Can you comment on this please?
My own feeling is that Fairtrade is a great movement, but I simply dont know enough about how it works, and it seems very open to exploitation by big business, eg being Fairtrade when the market has pushed prices high.

A. HarrietLamb: Of course, there are millions of producers involved with Fairtrade, or hoping to join Fairtrade, who do know about it. However, you are quite right that at present Fairtrade is much better known here in the Britain and across Europe than in the developing world as a whole. That is because we had to start by building consumer demand: if the public want Fairtrade, then it is in the company's interests to offer Fairtrade and that will be sustainable. So as the market for Fairtrade grows, more producers can gradually enter into the system. We didn't want to go running round the world raising expectations among producers only to shatter them as the market grows slowly.

Now, however, we are keen to ensure more people have heard about Fairtrade in developing countries too. Indeed, we hope that soon you will be able to buy Fairtrade in such countries too. You can already buy products with the Fairtrade Mark in South Africa and Mexico - and we hope India and Brazil will follow soon. So I hope that will gradually begin to change.

Fairtrade is indeed a great social movement for change. But it is also a certification system with standards for producers and traders. That is why you can trust the Fairtrade Mark: because we trust no-one. We check for example that companies really are paying the Fairtrade price to producers.


Q. CantSupinate: It would be nice if FT movement expanded its horizons to think about encouraging consumers to buy stuff that is more likely to fulfill the Fairtrade ideals. Thus wouldn't it be better (environmentally, and for producers) if we could easily buy clothes made of hemp/bamboo/linen, rather than the ubiquitous polyester or cotton? The same principle probably applies to food, some of our favourite foods may be the hardest to produce to a FT standard; at the very least, wouldn't it ideal if consumers were more informed about the impacts of our choices?

Or is that pie-in-the-sky thinking because the Fairtrade movement has enough on its plate already and changing consumer preferences is jolly hard work. Comments?

A. HarrietLamb: I certainly agree that it is indeed hard work changing consumer and company habits. But we've made some amazing progress in the past 15 years with seven out of ten people in this country knowing about Fairtrade. For fashion, we started with cotton because the needs of the cotton farmers are so strong. Cotton farmers are in a very vulnerable position at the bottom of supply chains. They have been severely affected by the fluctuations in world cotton prices which fell to $0.92/kg in 2001/02, their lowest level in 30 years. World cotton prices are currently averaging $1.15/kg. The price decline is in part due to increasing competition from synthetic fibres such as nylon and polyester which have increased their share of fibre production. Cotton farmers are finding it hard to sell their cotton and support their families. Fairtrade cotton standards are strong on environment standards, as well as social and economic. Also many producers are also organic and need to increase sales of cotton to carry on producing this way. But in the end we hope that you will indeed also be able to buy Fairtrade linen for example...

Short-term goals

Q. CantSupinate: Here we are telling you what Fairtrade could do better/different... what do YOU see as main short-term goals for the FT movement?

A. HarrietLamb: We launched our Tipping the Balance strategy two years ago with the aim of helping tip the balance of international trade in favour of farmers from developing countries. Our five goals are: to double the number of producers selling Fairtrade goods in the UK; make Fairtrade the norm in Britain with more people recognizing and buying products with the Fairtrade Mark; work with more companies and businesses to sell Fairtrade in including in restaurants and fashion stores; increase the Fairtrade market four times so more farmers benefits; and; lastly advocate for trade to be done on fairer terms as shown by the Fairtrade system.

Q. rabbit: We met you in Keswick a couple of weeks ago at the School Convention and really enjoyed the day - very inspirational; I now have all my Beaver Scouts looking for Fairtrade products when they are shopping and our school children have set up their steering group.

I am already swapping lots of products and once you start looking there are so many more than you'd think and suprising ones too; Bourneville Cocao and Tate & Lyle sugar were today's discoveries. Also good to note that some FT products are cheaper than others...checkout sugar in Tesco ladies and spot the Fairtrade bargain. From Sam, (hoping for Fairtrade Chocs, flowers and wine on Valentine's day!)

A. HarrietLamb: Hope you got your Valentine's day goodies! Great to hear about the scouts - kids really get Fairtrade, don't they, with their natural sense of justice. Don't forget to add your swap pledges to www.bigswap.org.uk so that we hit that one million and one target by the end of the Fairtrade Fortnight.

Last updated: 9 months ago