History tells us that no organisation is capable of reliable self-regulation, whether a newspaper, government, the police, the Catholic church and certainly not a supermarket; yet Sainsbury’s appear to be on the verge of ditching the established third-party Fairtrade Foundation certification system in favour of their own “fairly traded” labelling.
I do have some sympathy with Sainsbury’s on two counts; firstly, Fairtrade is far from being a perfect or complete solution to producer exploitation and secondly, the auditing of ethics can be an expensive and bureaucratic process. It is tempting to think that a commercially-focused organisation could do better on its own. Despite my own misgivings about Fairtrade (mainly around rewarding quality and securing long-term markets) my visits to, and contact with, producers has convinced me that despite its faults, it is by far the best option available and has delivered substantial gains for producers. As such we continue to support it through the certified bananas, pineapples, avocadoes and mangoes we sell. As for the cost; it must be accepted as the price of progress.
Riverford is currently moving towards employee ownership (EO), with staff due to take a 74% stake in May 2018. This has led to a lot of navel-gazing about what values Riverford stands for, and how we will protect them into the future. We have visited other values-driven and EO companies, studied their governance structures and researched what works and what doesn’t. Through this I have almost managed to grow out of my knee-jerk antagonism to the idea of someone else auditing my virtue.