Andreas Späth

Fairtrade is greener, too

2012-12-10 15:50

Andreas Späth

After doing some research on the impact of Fairtrade on farm workers and small farmers for Fairtrade Label South Africa recently, I argued that this growing movement represents a viable alternative to the very explosive labour relations that exist in parts of South Africa’s agricultural sector. I also discovered that it has an important environmental side to it.

Fairtrade is primarily motivated by social justice. It's an ethical accreditation system that aims to raise the standard of living and promote social upliftment among small farmers and farm workers in the developing world by improving working conditions and providing access to global markets on a more equitable footing.

The Fairtrade development premium, for example, is a portion of the profits made from the sale of every Fairtrade product, which is democratically administered by the producers themselves and used for community development projects from building crèches to paying school and college fees.

While this may be the main reason why you prefer Fairtrade goods over conventional equivalents when you have the choice, there are additional green benefits that you may not have been aware of until now. Just as there are Fairtrade labour standards which are monitored through regular farm audits to guarantee decent working conditions, there are strict Fairtrade environmental standards that have to be met by accredited producers.


- champion sustainable farming methods to promote soil fertility and prevent erosion, such as cover-cropping, composting and mulching, as well encouraging producers to reduce, reuse and recycle farming inputs and resources;

- emphasise conservation, the protection of natural habitats and ecosystems and practices that protect and increase biodiversity;

- place strict regulations on the use of pesticides to minimise detrimental impacts on the environment and health risks to workers;

- encourage the efficient and sustainable use of water;

- ban genetically modified crops from Fairtrade farms;

- require that hazardous waste is safely disposed of; and

- define progressive standards for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.

The production of coffee and rooibos tea are two great examples showing how Fairtrade makes a difference to the lives of small-scale African farmers while simultaneously having environmental benefits.

Improve food security

The members of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union of southern Ethiopia produce over 25 000 tonnes of Fairtrade-certified Arabica coffee on small family farms annually, while their counterparts in Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union cultivate Arabica on the slopes of Africa’s highest mountain. They do so without the use of synthetic agro-chemicals and receive training in sustainable farming practices, like composting the by-products of coffee production, employing indigenous plants for pest control, as well as utilising natural fertilisers and shade trees.

They're also involved in local conservation efforts and intercrop their coffee plots with various food crops to enhance soil fertility and improve food security. Fairtrade coffee from both unions is available in South Africa, for example at Woolworths.

Their association with Fairtrade helps to make coffee production – the lifeblood of hundreds of thousands of families in the region – environmentally and economically sustainable at a time when it’s under substantial threat not only from low commodity prices on world markets, but also from climate change and deforestation.

Coffee is very sensitive to climate: as Kilimanjaro’s glaciers disappear, for instance, Tanzanian coffee planters are slowly being deprived of the melt water they depend on to irrigate their crop. Scientists have warned that wild Arabica may be extinct by 2080.

Barend Salomo, rooibos farmer and managing director of the Wupperthal Original Rooibos Cooperative (WORC) in the Cederberg says that without Fairtrade, the 90-odd members of the cooperative could not survive financially. He too, places a high premium on the environment: “There must be harmony between our activities and nature. So we can’t use every bit of land for rooibos farming and I think that’s easier to accomplish on small plots like ours rather than on large commercial fields.”

WORC farmers don’t irrigate their plots or apply synthetic chemicals, and they cultivate and harvest by hand. Their tea, along with other Fairtrade rooibos, is available locally.

By purchasing Fairtrade accredited products you’ll not only be supporting farm workers and small farmers, but more eco-friendly farming methods as well.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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