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Is Fairtrade really worth it?

pic3In house baking expert Vanessa Kimbell explains why Fairtrade is worth the extra effort. 

This week is Fairtrade Fortnight.  More than ever Fairtrade seems relevant to baking as ingredients such as sugar, spices and bananas have joined the Fairtrade organisation.  On Monday, 24th February, a new campaign was launched, Make Bananas Fair asking the UK public to help put an end to the supermarket price wars, including a petition asking the Government to urgently step in and investigate the impact of retailer pricing practices. As part of the campaign, a new report called Britain’s Bruising Banana Wars has revealed that, in the past 10 years, the UK supermarket sector has almost halved the shelf price of loose bananas while the cost of producing them has doubled.

The report also shows that the real impact British supermarket price wars are having on the banana farmers, workers and their families. The export price of a banana in 2004 was about 18p and the average price is now just. This drop in export prices represents an ever-tightening squeeze on what producers actually earn for their bananas. Combined with escalating production and living costs, the standard of living of many farmers and workers is progressively.

picsFairtrade is important to me. It gives me the opportunity to make a difference while just going about my everyday life, and when I was first asked to develop the recipes for BakeryBits I was worried that perhaps my principles of using ethical and sustainable ingredients could be compromised. I needn’t have worried.  Patrick, the MD immediately agreed that we should aim as high as we can whenever possible.  “Sustainable practices at BakeryBits is part of our daily routine. We send a lot of packages and we make sure that all the packaging is degradable or recycled. We recycle the cardboard boxes that we receive to make packaging for those that we sent. We use the more costly paper and cellulose tapes rather than non-degradable plastic. We spend more on our bubble wrap and mailing bags, using only those that are biodegradable. We’re not perfect: there are one or two things that we haven’t found an alternative for yet but at BakeryBits we are always looking, but using Fair Trade products is really just is an extension of our core beliefs because we consider the effects of our business on both environment and people wherever possible.”

Since reporting from Uganda on the production of Vanilla for the BBC Radio 4 food Programme Fairtrade fortnight means more than ever.  Having seen first hand how fair pay and working conditions for farmers and producers is vitally important; where I can, I encourage people to use Fairtrade products. I do understand though, that it can sometimes be a little more costly, but not always: there are some products where the Fairtrade option is less expensive and better quality.

pic2Take BakeryBits’ hugely popular Ndali Vanilla 6 powder: six whole vanilla pods that have been ground to a powder, and cost £5.78. Two whole pods commonly cost about a pound less, so by buying the powder gives a saving of around £7. There are plenty of other examples from other shops; for example, Fairtrade sugar is no more expensive than non-Fairtrade. A packet of Sainsbury’s own label Fairtrade granulated costs £0.90, compared to £1.00 for non-Fairtrade branded. Cocoa is a little more expensive: £2.99 for Sainsbury’s Fairtrade, compared to £2.50 for non-Fairtrade, but then black peppercorns are cheaper: £1.50 for 50 grams (again, from Sainsbury’s), compared to a 100g packet of Fairtrade peppercorns costing £2.50. Looking at other spices, the differences are also relatively small. Sainsbury’s Fairtrade own-brand turmeric is £0.21 per 10g; branded non-Fairtrade is £0.52, and the same relationship holds for cloves. With other products, you can get a lower price per item by buying larger quantities; Sainsbury’s Basics non-Fairtrade cashew nuts are £0.70 per 100g, and while the unit price for the 100g bag is admittedly £2.20, the 300g bag sells for £4.50, equating to £1.50 per 100g.

The assumption that all Fairtrade products are priced at a significant premium isn’t true. For some items, yes, it is more expensive, but for others the price difference is minimal or even in Fairtrade’s favour. But while the range is improving, there is still the occasional gap: Morrison’s doesn’t sell a range of Fairtrade spices, for example, and Fairtrade rice isn’t stocked by any of the major supermarkets.

Fairtrade also means high quality goods; I find that in many instances Fairtrade also means better tasting food. Farmers are involved within their co-operatives and invested in the entire production process. Crops are grown and harvested in smaller quantities. As a result, Fair Trade food is often, in my experience, fresher and tastier.

I have spent time with many farmers on their plantations and have seen how Fairtrade actively promotes integrated farm management systems which improve soil fertility and preserve valuable ecosystems, and limit the use of harmful chemicals that present dangers to farmers’ health and often that danger extends to his or her children. That also means food that’s safer for us. Some of the amazing projects that Fairtrade supports changes peoples lives in communities. By working through cooperative structures, Fairtrade artisans and small farmers are able to invest Fairtrade earnings in their communities, improving housing, healthcare, and schools and brings about peace in areas that might otherwise be unstable.

In total there are 4,500 Fairtrade items on sale in the UK, and in some cases, Fairtrade has become the norm: bananas, for example. The popularity of Fairtrade is increasing, despite pressures on peoples’ wallets: sales in the UK grew by 14% last year overall, with growth in sales of sugar of 25% and no less than 52% for chocolate, but these numbers are dwarfed by the growth in sales of fresh vegetables of no less than 316%.

These growth figures show that those of us buying Fairtrade aren’t alone. Thinking about the source of our food is increasingly common, and for those items where we simply don’t have direct knowledge of the source, certification such as Fairtrade - with all its imperfections - does provide some peace of mind about the ability of the producer to earn a living wage from his efforts. dancers We can’t ignore the fact that our actions have consequences and when the opportunity to support the systems that govern our planet is available as a choice in the form of a bag of sugar, a bar of chocolate or a vanilla pod I feel that it is an option we should take. Even with a limited budget, I believe that anyone can incorporate Fairtrade into everyday cooking without breaking the bank. As we have seen, in many cases Fairtrade can be cheaper than non-Fairtrade, and when there is a price premium it is only small. What really helps is mindfulness about everyday shopping.  Writing shopping lists, planning meals, taking a homemade lunch to work and careful use of leftovers can save enough to give most people the option to buy Fairtrade. Yes it takes a little extra time an some planning, but when I think about the difference that a fairness has on the people I met it is time I am willing to spend and I will always specify Fairtrade, because I truly believe that buying Fairtrade is a delicious way in which we can all change the world one bite at a time.

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