Playing fair…

As part of the Cathedral’s annual theme exploring ecology and the environment, we’ve been working towards the Silver ‘eco-church’ award . The eco-church questionnaire invites us to take a good look at ourselves and assess how far we’ve progressed in different areas of church life including Worship and teaching, Management of church buildings, Management of church land, Community and global engagement and Lifestyle.

We were delighted to be awarded the Bronze award in November 2016, which was a reflection of the steady stream of changes and improvements the Cathedral has been making. However the Silver and Gold awards will mean we need to ‘up our game’ if we’re going to continue making this level of progress.

There are many aspects of church life which the eco-church award challenges us to examine. We can no longer be complacent that simply ‘doing our bit’ and ‘ticking the box’ is enough. As a community of people we are challenged to look deeper; at ourselves, our motives and the world around us and ask the difficult questions that it might be easier to overlook…

One of these areas is Fairtrade, and on the surface, it seems like an odd area to be looking at. Surely Fairtrade is an obvious ‘yes’? We know that producers in poorer countries need to be valued for their work and paid a fair price for their crops. We know that being self-sustaining is far more likely to get people out of debt and less dependent on international aid. And as Christians we believe that God loves each of us and values each of us equally, and we should show that same love and grace to one another – and match that love in deeds not just words.

The danger is that it’s easy for us to become complacent. It’s easy for us to think: “Oh yes, Fairtrade, I’ve done that bit. Now I can move on to think about something else.” But the problem is that whilst the Fairtrade principle is a very good one, it’s not a perfect system – it has its flaws, as all systems inevitably do, and to suggest that it’s either “Fairtrade or nothing”, takes a rather simplistic view of far more complex and nuanced situation.

For example: we might all agree that child labour is wrong and that tea plantations shouldn’t employ children below a certain age. But what if preventing those children from working, denies that family an income? No-one is suggesting that child labour should be ignored and the rights of the child not championed. But what this does illustrate is that these issues are far from simplistic, and we need deeper and more nuanced thinking to address them.

Alternatively, we might say that all farmers should sign up to the Fair Trade Foundation’s standards, in order to benefit from the security of a guaranteed price for their crops. But what if some of those farms are too small to meet all the required standards, or don’t have the capacity to adhere to the guidelines the Fairtrade Foundation suggests? That means those farmers aren’t ‘Fairtrade’. But does that necessarily mean that they can’t be traded with fairly?

I suspect in the end it comes down to purpose. In his book ‘Being Human’ Rev Steve Chalke cites Elisabeth Murdoch and her comment on the Murdoch media empire:

‘“Profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster. Profit must be our servant, not our master.” She goes on to say that what the newspaper industry needed was ‘a rigorous set of values based on an explicit statement of purpose’.”

The purpose of the Fairtrade mark is to connect disadvantaged producers and consumers, promote fairer trading conditions and empower producers to combat poverty, strengthen their position and take more control over their lives.” This is an excellent and admirable purpose and for that, I would not discourage people from buying or supporting the Fairtrade mark.

However, to view the Fairtrade mark as a ‘one size fits all’ solution to international trade is sadly somewhat naïve. The issues which Fairtrade seeks to address are complex, and whilst we shouldn’t abandon that initiative, we should also recognise that there is more than one way to address trade equality. Fairtrade, for all its brand strength, cannot address all the nuances of every production, trade and manufacturing process and neither was it meant to. Certainly the raw source material may be produced to certain standards and sold at a fair price, but is every stage of transportation, storage and manufacture as rigorous? Do the truck drivers and warehouse operatives get a Living Wage and fair working conditions? We don’t know. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to buy and advocate for fair trade – but equally that doesn’t mean that the Fairtrade mark is the only option open to us.

Of course, that in itself brings challenges. Few of us have the time (or even the will!) to thoroughly research every aspect of trade, manufacture and sale, for every item we buy. The Fairtrade mark brings a degree of reassurance that at least some care, thought and principle has been applied to the items in our baskets. We’ve become accustomed to seeing the Fairtrade mark on our coffee and in the last few years a Fairtrade mobile phone was released – how long before we start to see it on our TVs, washing machines or even cars?

But perhaps where aspects of Fairtrade are less obvious, and the reassuring marking missing from the side of the box or the wall of your favourite café or restaurant, perhaps then it’s time to dig a little deeper: to contact the company which makes and sells your favourite chocolate, cereal or even kitchen appliance, and ask them about the degree to which their products are ethical?

“And let us not get tired of doing what is right, for after a while we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t get discouraged and give up.” Gal 6:9 Living Bible translation

Surely every aspect of manufacture deserves the same degree of scrutiny, in order that every unseen worker, grower, driver and seamstress has their chance to play fair?


“Fairy Tale” The Economist, Jul 5th 2014

“Fair Trade is neither fair nor good for trade” Prof Philip Booth, The Telegraph Feb 28th 2011

“Ten reasons fair trade coffee doesn’t work” Bruce Wydick, HuffPost Blog Jul 8th 2014, updated Jan 28th 2016

“Six things people get wrong about Fairtrade” Patrick Say Fairtrade Foundation Blog 29th June 2016

“Fairtrade” Chris Woodford, Explain That Stuff blog 2nd Nov 2016

“Being Human” Rev Steve Chalk, Hodder 2016

FAQs Fairtrade Foundation website


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