Engaging stories: Fairtrade cotton

I mostly drink Fairtrade coffee, sometimes eat Fairtrade chocolate, but must confess, I don’t wear Fairtrade cotton. That will change now that I am reading Harriet Lamb’s Fighting the Banana Wars and Other Fairtrade Battles.

Struggling to stay above the poverty line

Harriet Lamb tells of cotton grower’s subsistence existence in Africa, where cotton supports about 10 million people. For countries such as Burkina Faso, cotton is the major export. Typically the growers live in villages that often don’t have direct access to drinking water, education and healthcare facilities – things we take for granted in the West.

African and other third-world cotton growers are enmeshed in the fabric of global trading dynamics. If they only had to contend with the vagaries of the weather and nature, and even the free market, they might be okay, but their problems are compounded by subsidies that wealthy countries pay their cotton growers. The U.S. Government subsidises their own cotton growers in response to falling cotton prices. When U.S. subsidies increased in 2001, U.S. growers responded by growing more cotton. Not, surprisingly, increased production saw the global price fall further. In 2005, the U.S. Government spent $4.7 billion on cotton subsidies, more than it spent on aid to Africa.

We also have spare a thought for the U.S. taxpayer here. The Government’s subsidies distort the market and impoverish parts of Africa, impelling Western governments to provide aid – so the U.S. taxpayer pays twice – through cotton subsidies and through aid. And it is even more crazy when the US subsidises Brazilian cotton farmers as part of a free trade deal. Unfortunately the Africans don’t have a free trade deal! The Fairtrade story, teaches us that aid is less necessary when factors influencing global markets are more carefully managed for all stakeholders.

Minimum prices

Fairtrade’s main mechanism for creating better returns for growers is a minimum price. This provides a buffer for growers and with the troughs in the market cycles eliminated, growers and their communities get the cash they need to raise living standards. Typically communities will invest additional income into clean and local water supplies and education.

As important as the material improvements, is the contribution the Fairtrade ethos brings to village life. For example, Fairtrade work to raise the status of women, through the agency of additional income and education. This video about Fairtrade cotton in Cameroon features the benefits to women. One of the women outlines the benefits:

The Fairtrade standards insist that women are in the group. The men had difficulty accepting this at first but slowly they realised that it could work. And now they own their own land… they are independent. They work their land, they go and receive their money alongside the men and this motivates others to get involved as well.

Commodity price increases

Recent spikes in commodity prices around the world have ameliorated the distortions created by subsidies. Demand for cotton has increased, as more people join the middle class, cotton production decreases and discerning consumers learn to favour natural textiles. This chart from the Index Mundi website, show the cotton price over the last fifteen years, revealing the sharp recent spike.

What I don’t know, is the impact this spike has had on third world growers. When commodity prices rise, growers don’t necessarily benefit. Has Fairtrade been able to ensure a fair share of the benefits get to those that need it most? And does it make you feel better about paying more money for a pair of jeans?

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