Has Fair Trade asked enough?
My decision to attend this AQR listed event was partly practical. It was free, it wasn't fully booked, I had no plans for that night and my housemate was at home to Sky plus Don't Tell the Bride on BBC 3.
The subject matter was interesting, too. I'm relatively new to consumer research but I've found Fair Trade to be one of those "big words" that people use to mean all kinds of things. They associate it with everything from healthy food to superior quality ingredients and with not exploiting the Third World to anything connected with Bono. It's sometimes perceived as an umbrella brand for all things good, but I'd never heard a detailed definition. Admittedly, I'd never sought one out, so this was my chance.
The chair asked the audience to identify themselves as either an LSE student or a committed Fair Trader and that left me and about two others who didn't put our hands up. Perhaps we were all market researchers undercover. I'll never know.
The speakers came from a variety of backgrounds which helped to give a balanced view: academia, social justice, entrepreneur and big business (Tate & Lyle).
The big supermarkets were singled out as the biggest barrier to more widespread adoption of Fair Trade. They were blamed for exploiting their suppliers with bullish demands and for not buying into the ethos of the movement.
Perhaps the most surprising thing for me was to hear the majority of speakers emphasise the trade part more than the fairness. As a consumer I have always understood the movement to focus more on helping out the Third World. Speakers, however, tended to stress the sustainable nature of the supply chain from a business point of view rather than a humanitarian one.
Humanitarian benefits were mentioned as a side benefit of empowering local producers to become businessmen themselves, rather than just farmers. As the woman from Tate & Lyle pointed out, these producers can't become too much like independent businesses or they might stop making sugar and decide to open up a music business instead!
I can't say that I left the talk a committed "Fair Trader" — but it did give me the best explanation for why the organisation exists, and the issues it tackles, that I have ever had. It is impossible to cover all these in such a short article, which is why I suppose it's likely to remain one of those "big words" that consumers use.
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2011