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Going further with Michael Gidney, Chief Executive of the Fairtrade Foundation
1. In your own words, what do you do?
I am responsible for the work of the Fairtrade Foundation, which is the home of the FAIRTRADE Mark in the UK. Our role is to take the concept of Fairtrade to the mainstream, providing opportunities for every company – no matter how big or small – to get involved. We’re supported by an incredible public movement in the UK – our job is to harness that potential and deliver more impact from trade for farmers and workers in developing countries.
2. This is your first Fairtrade Fortnight as CEO of the Fairtrade Foundation. How do you feel?
I’m really looking forward to it – it’s a brilliant opportunity to meet some of the people who make up this extraordinary and dynamic movement: the schools, towns, universities and faith groups who do so much to campaign for Fairtrade all year long. It’s also a great time to be on the high street, visiting stores and seeing how many of our leading brands and supermarkets are going further for Fairtrade.
3. You began your career as a teacher in Kenya – did that have a lasting impact on where you are now? Eureka moment?
Teaching in Kenya certainly opened my eyes, but actually it was the power of the possible rather than the poverty that struck me. Nakuru, where I taught, is a bustling town full of entrepreneurs; what I remember most clearly is the strength of the informal sector - the market stallholders, roadside vegetable traders, panel beaters and stone carvers. That certainly helped me understand the huge potential to transform poverty through trade.
4. What has influenced you over the years to continue working for fair trade?
Trade is the most effective way of ending poverty. Of course we need aid – I feel proud to live in a country with such a strong commitment to development aid, even in a recession. But aid is transitory. Trade – if it’s done fairly - enables people to take control of their own lives and build a more secure future. It’s a very clear proposition and the results can be transformational.
5. Who inspires you, and how do you try to inspire others?
I love the optimism in Fairtrade and try to reflect that in my own approach. The challenges related to global sustainable development are immense, but Fairtrade starts at a very local level. Just recently I was in Kenya meeting some of the 8,000 tea smallholders who together own the Iriaini Tea Factory in Kenya: they used the confidence and business prowess they gained from selling on Fairtrade terms to start packing their own tea at source. They now earn an extra $2-3 per kilo, capturing more value where it is needed most. This in turn has inspired them to diversify into the local and regional market - Iriaini packed tea will be one of the first Fairtrade certified products available in East Africa. It’s a great example of Fairtrade in action, and how producers can become players in trade.
6. You have said there is still much more to do in terms of making trade fair – how can businesses and individuals go further this Fairtrade Fortnight?
We get great support from individuals and businesses in the UK, but there is always more to do. This year we’re asking you to go further by choosing a Fairtrade product that you’ve not tried before – did you know there is Fairtrade gold and silver? Or Fairtrade bean-burgers, olive oil and cotton wool? By buying a range of Fairtrade products consumers are sending a strong message to businesses, who will change their behaviour as a result. The challenge to support smallholder farmers is huge, and government also has a part to play. You can sign our petition asking for support for small farmers and therefore a more secure food system.
7. What are the biggest threats to Fairtrade at the moment?
As more and more companies get involved in Fairtrade there is a risk that people will think that the job is now done and that the long-term campaign to end unfair trade can disband. This is far from the truth – it’s a scandal that, today, half the world’s hungry are themselves farmers. Until we can find ways of making trade work for everyone we cannot ease the pace.
8. Food is on the political agenda this year – what are the big issues? Food security, land grabbing and broken systems, climate change
There is growing consensus that we face a crisis in our food system and that major shifts will be needed in activity and attitude. There are serious threats to the sustainability of some of our most important global agricultural commodities – particularly coffee and cocoa, but also sugar and tea. An unsustainable food system affects us all, but none more so than farmers and workers in developing countries who have to tackle a triple whammy of global economic downturn, the impact of climate change and a long history of poor prices and under-investment in their farms. Unless the major players in these commodities actively invest in sustainable supply chains and balance their social and environmental as well as their economic performance, there is a very real risk of supply shortages on the horizon in some of the everyday food categories we all take for granted.
9. Fairtrade works to try to get more retailers switching to Fairtrade – but how important is it to get Fairtrade and food issues into the political agenda?
There is a great deal that companies can do, working in partnership with producers and consumers. The success of Fairtrade has demonstrated that. But there is a clear role for government in promoting fairer trade and lasting change, by regulating against the worst trade practices, incentivising good corporate practice and providing funding so that small-scale producers can reach markets in a sustainable way.
10. What are the challenges in getting more big retailers on-board?
Asking companies to take on more challenges, and potentially to pay more through their supply chain, is never easy – particularly during a recession. The strong public support for Fairtrade, which is growing year on year, is the clearest signal we can send that people want companies to go further. Companies have a mandate to care and we work to help them respond.
11. And why is Fairtrade good for business – delivering against triple bottom line – or, what can Fairtrade teach business?
Fairtrade sales have seen double-digit growth while the UK economy has been flat-lining. That in itself is a powerful driver for companies to seek out Fairtrade markets. But Fairtrade delivers other dividends too. It provides security of supply and improves welfare, sustainability and productivity in the supply chain whilst also providing a powerful story for brands to use in communicating with their customers.
12. How far can Fairtrade go?
We will be focusing on trade, and on the need to change policy and practice, until the job is done and unfair trade is a thing of the past.
13. What do you do in your spare time?
I live with my family on the Suffolk coast and we spend as much time as we can outside. I’m learning to sail (badly) and love cycling and walking. East Suffolk is an amazing place for food – there are a large number of small-scale local producers – and we try where we can to support them.
14. What’s your one golden rule?
Never say never
15. And finally, how will you go further this Fairtrade fortnight?
I’ll be on the road a great deal and hope to meet some of the many people who are themselves going further for Fairtrade. I want to ask them what they think Fairtrade is doing well, and where we can improve. I’ll also be joining the campaign to ask the Prime Minister to put smallholder farmers at the heart of his trade proposals during the G8 summit in June. And I’m also going into my son’s primary school to talk about Fairtrade food. Talking about Fairtrade with children is a great leveller – they always let you know what they think!