Fair Trade & the EU with Linda McAvan MEP

Our Communications Assistant, Ffion Storer Jones sat down with Linda McAvan MEP ahead of World Fair Trade Day to talk about her work supporting Fair Trade over her 20 years as an MEP and how she encourages us all to take action in support of Fair Trade.

How did you get involved with Fair Trade, and what’s been your journey since? 

I suppose because I’ve been involved in politics for a long time, and in progressive politics, in the Labour party, I first saw Fair Trade products at Labour Party meetings, where local people who were active with Oxfam would bring them to our meetings. That was in the 1980s, and I have to say then, it was a bit of an ordeal drinking Fair Trade coffee because it wasn’t great quality. So people bought it out of a sense of duty. What has been one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is how Fair Trade is now much more mainstream, and it’s a pleasure to have Fair Trade tea or coffee, or other Fair Trade products. So that was my first encounter with Fair Trade but as a politician, my first real exposure to Fair Trade and its impact on producers was when I went to Ghana in a visit organised by Oxfam in the early 2000s when we visited Kuapa Kokoo cooperative.

The Fair Trade Movement is incredibly diverse but everyone is ultimately working towards the same goal, which is to ensure better terms of trade for the people that are producing the things that we rely on in our daily lives. Within the Movement, we have the two systems, one is centred around commodity training, so for products like coffee or bananas and then there is the system which is certifying mission led business models like Global Mamas in Ghana. How do you think the two contribute to the vision of a fair and sustainable economy?

I think that the commodities are things that people buy every day, so they are very visible to people – like coffee, bananas and chocolate, and what has changed in the twenty years I have been an MEP is that they are far more widespread, in many different countries. And that has been a pleasure to see. I was once in Poland and saw Fair Trade products there. So those products can make a big difference, and they are getting more of the market share. Whereas on the goods that come through the certification system of the mission led businesses, they are more things that people buy as gifts but they are also perhaps paving the way for how business can be. Why can’t we scale that up? We are seeing new retailers sourcing textiles more sustainably for example – changing the way we are producing. There’s lots of interest now in value chains and having fairness in value chains, and I think the new European Parliament after the elections will be looking a lot more closely at that.

In your role as MEP, you have been doing a lot of work both in increasing the visibility of Fair Trade and supporting the up scaling of purpose-driven businesses. In your twenty years as an MEP, what has been your experience of policymakers engaging with the concept of Fair Trade?

Generally speaking, there’s quite a lot of goodwill towards Fair Trade, as it’s a concept that gets support from across the political spectrum. I’m from the left of politics, from the Labour party in Britain but a lot of Fair Trade activists are church-based, and thus representatives of the centre-right parties are also interested. Getting people to say that they agree with it is not so hard. Getting people then to legislate on it is more difficult. If we look to the future, if we really want to change the world – and I want to change the world, that’s why I’m in politics – we have to get people to take the ‘it’s nice to buy Fair Trade products’ and turn it in to ‘we have to change the way the global trading system works so that producers get a fair share’, and that’s the next step.

Would you say that is where the biggest challenges have been, and where they lie in terms of seeing legislative change?

Yes. People will generally say that they support Fair Trade, but even at the very beginning, the first thing that we did was try and get a European Commission initiative on Fair Trade, and immediately chocolate and confectionery manufacturers started lobbying saying ‘why should Fair Trade have a special status in European Union law, because it’s just a brand?’. We had to spend a lot of time explaining to European Commission officials that Fair Trade is not a brand. It’s no more a brand than the concept of organic is a brand. In a way, it is similar to Organic, in that it is a way of producing which can be certified. Therefore, it’s not promoting one brand against others. We even had court cases, where Fair Trade Towns and Cities were brought to the European Court of Justice for having public procurement rules on buying Fair Trade tea and coffee. That’s all behind us now, because now the concept of Fair Trade is much better understood. But of course, when it comes to real legislation you get opposition from vested interests. In this parliament, the Fair Trade work has continued but we’ve also legislated on conflict minerals, and that was tough at first – companies complained that it wasn’t possible. Everybody knows that in their mobile phones that there are components made with materials coming from conflict zones, and we are trying to clean up the supply chains. We have done that legislation, and now we want to move on to textiles and cocoa.

You mentioned opposition from chocolate companies, but now we’re seeing huge advancements where chocolate companies are standing up and saying that they want to have binding human rights due diligence in supply chains. That’s a huge step forward and part of the work you’ve been doing with the Fair Trade Working Group that you set up over 15 years ago.

It is amazing actually to think how we started on Fair Trade, and how we had a discussion recently where chocolate companies were saying that their consumers are asking them ‘Is it true that there’s child labour in your supply chains? Is it true that there’s slave labour in your supply chains? We don’t want this anymore!’. So they want to be sure that it is out of their supply chains, and they don’t want their brand image tarnished from it, and so they’re asking the European Union to legislate, which is a total difference from 15 years ago. That in a way is good, because that pressure is coming from ordinary people, it’s the consumers that are putting the pressure on companies to change their policies, a little like the young people that are campaigning on climate change.

What words of advice do you have then for citizens; individuals or organisations that want to encourage their political representatives to support Fair Trade?

To believe that pressure does make a difference. That politicians do listen. That if you start a campaign that sometimes it can lead to change. As I said, chocolate companies are now asking for European law for cocoa, and they are working with all the green groups on forestry and with Fair Trade and they’re saying that they don’t want individual country legislation and that they want the EU to legislate. That they want to clean up their supply chains. It does have an impact. I can think of many things in my political life where even an individual letter sometimes can change things. Without the grassroots Fair Trade organisations across Europe helping the Fair Trade Working Group, we would not have gotten so far in the European Parliament. If you’re a grassroots activist, you should go and meet your local politicians, local councillors. Ask your town hall if they could just have Fair Trade tea and coffee, ask if you could become a Fair Trade town. Meet your Members of Parliament. Now, in the House of Commons in the British Parliament, there’s a Fair Trade Group, and that’s someone who used to work for me – Holly Lynch. She was my press officer, and she’s now a Member of Parliament and she’s a part of that group.

We’re all creating ripples of change, whether that’s through how we’re choosing to spend our pennies or our euros, or whether that’s through our words with members of the community or our political representatives. What’s your favourite memory, or your best achievement perhaps, of all the things that you have done – which of course is extensive? Is there anything that stands out for you?

I think that the fact that when we started we had to explain to European Commission officials what Fair Trade was, and have this discussion about it not being a brand. By now we have a Fair Trade Towns award in the European Union, we have a Fair Trade budget line, we have support for Fair Trade, we have EU Ambassadors in countries, like Brazil, promoting Fair Trade, and a European Commissioner – Cecilia Malmstrom – who, when I last saw her said ‘look Linda, I’m wearing you Fair Trade earrings’. So I think we’ve gone from hardly anybody talking about it to having a policy, and I hope in the next Parliament, with the support of grassroots activists and the Fair Trade Movement, who are absolutely vital, we’ll get more support, and make sure that Fair Trade becomes much more common, and fairer trade becomes the norm in European politics.