There's never been anything quite like this. On the one hand, the world's largest food corporation, with annual revenues in excess of $60 billion, is promoting its new 'Partners' Blend' coffee in Britain as 'Fairtrade'. On the other, 'Partners' Blend' has joined the rest of its products on the target list of a long-established and active boycott campaign against NestlÃ©. Interested supporters of fair trade must be wondering what on earth is going on.
Harriet Lamb, Director of the Fairtrade Foundation - which provides the certification - is sanguine about 'Partners' Blend'. 'This is a turning point for us and for the coffee growers,' she says. 'It's also a turning point for the many people who support Fairtrade and have been pressing the major companies to offer Fairtrade coffees.' She does not, however, suggest who these 'many people' may be.
Patti Rundall, for example, is less impressed. She is Policy Director at Baby Milk Action, which campaigns to prevent the aggressive marketing of baby milk to mothers who can't afford it and have no access to clean water. 'To give a Fairtrade mark to a company whose baby food trade systemically violates child rights on such a massive scale, contributing as it does to the deaths of millions of children,' she says, 'makes an absolute mockery of what the public believes the Fairtrade mark stands for.'
Who is right? It's not difficult to sense which hand is currently the stronger. NestlÃ© should be able to profit quite handsomely from the premium price on its 'Partners' Blend' in Britain, which has the world's premier 'Fairtrade' coffee market. The lives of some coffee farmers in El Salvador and Ethiopia, who are supplying 'Partners' Blend', will certainly be improved a little in the process.
The same trend is occurring elsewhere. In the US the maverick Rainforest Alliance, having once 'certified' Chiquita bananas, has added a coffee brand produced by Kraft - another of the 'big four' transnational corporations which dominate the global trade in food - to its list of 'Fairtrade' products. The giant
Tesco retail chain, and Starbucks coffee shops, have also been granted 'Fairtrade' certified brands.
Clearly, the rapid growth of fair trade is causing some anxiety among the giant corporations in whose interests the international trading system is currently run. The question is whether fair trade is an alternative to the conventional market, or just a branded 'niche' within it.
Harriet Lamb's 'many people' must be the 'mainstreamers' within the fair trade movement who are clearly heading for the niche. Such a course is, however, strewn with danger.
Arguably, had NestlÃ© wanted to put fair trade out of business, this is precisely what it would have done. Indeed, credible rumours had been circulating for some time that the corporation intended to launch its own 'ethical' coffee brand in Britain, with or without independent certification. It may just have been a veiled threat. But if, by way of mitigation, the Fairtrade Foundation feels that it has had its hand
forced, then it should have learned an early lesson in the coercive ways of NestlÃ©.
For years, and at every opportunity - on its website and elsewhere - NestlÃ© has trashed the very idea of fair trade. Paying fairer prices, it still insists, encourages 'overproduction' and violates free-market principles - which is true. Now, with its very own brand, it is at liberty to undercut every other 'Fairtrade' brand, not least on price, and put them out of business. For every extra jar it sells, many more will doubtless be lost to fair trade as a whole - in the confusion, if not active rejection, of existing or potential customers. If the mark can sit quite happily beside the logos of NestlÃ©, Kraft, Tescos and Starbucks, what makes 'Fairtrade' any different? It will be a constant, uphill and self-imposed struggle to re-establish this, even if it is possible to do so at all.
The Fairtrade Foundation says it runs 'a product certification scheme, not a company endorsement'. Such a distinction is made by few, if any, companies themselves. Quite why the Fairtrade Foundation thinks it is in a position to invent one is not at all clear. And in NestlÃ© we have not just any old transnational, but the most boycotted corporation in the world.
Baby Milk Action - which co-ordinates the boycott campaign in Britain - reports that NestlÃ© is 'the largest single source of violations of the World Health Organization and UNICEF's International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes'. (www.babymilkaction.org) The boycott campaign has been supported from its inception by New Internationalist. Our 6th edition, in August 1973, carried 'The Baby Food Tragedy' as its cover story, followed in April 1982 by 'Stop the Baby Milk Pushers... Boycott NestlÃ© now!' (see 'back issues')
The launch of 'Partners' Blend' comes at an unfortunate time, in the very same month as the labour movement in the Philippines mourns the assassination of the leader of a protest at a NestlÃ© factory; as trade unionists from Colombia gather in Switzerland to present evidence of NestlÃ©'s links to paramilitary death squads; and as a campaign is launched in the US over NestlÃ©'s alleged association with child labour in the harvesting of cocoa beans. Truth to tell, any other time would probably be equally unfortunate.
In the long term, quite what good can come out of 'Partner's Blend' is uncertain. The fact is that the past 10 years, which have been so good for 'Fairtrade' coffee, have been disastrous for the vast majority of the world's 20 million coffee farmers. World coffee prices have slumped, pushing coffee farmers below the level of subsistence - while filling the coffers of the likes of NestlÃ©, which charge consumers the same or more and pocket the difference.
This is the foul reality of world trade. A burgeoning trade justice movement is taking issue with it, while 'mainstreamers' seem quite happy to do deals with it, breaking the link between the two.
Perhaps public awareness of what NestlÃ© really does will increase as a result, and the boycott of its products - now including 'Partners' Blend' - will intensify. Maybe one or more of the Fairtrade Foundation's 'charity shareholders' - which include Oxfam, People and Planet, Traidcraft Exchange, the World Development Movement and the National Federation of Women's Institutes - will come out and publicly suggest that it should think again, at the very least until NestlÃ© refrains from the aggressive marketing of baby milk.
In any event, the central focus of fair trade, as an aspect of trade justice, is now likely to shift away from the fads of branding or blind faith in marketing in the rich consuming countries, towards the harsh realities still facing farmers and producers of all kinds in the South.
The International Fair Trade Association (IFAT) has been doing just this for some time, and now has its own 'Fair Trade Organization' (FTO) mark. This identifies people and organizations rather than products and brands. As such it is a much more reliable guide for consumers wishing to express a sense of solidarity with producers. (www.ifat.org)
Sadly, if the 'Fairtrade' mark keeps heading in the wrong direction it must eventually get lost altogether.