fairtrade, fair trade and free trade

Today marks the start of Fairtrade Fortnight and given that fair trading is such a key part of our ethos, one might ask why so little of what goes in the boxes carries the Fairtrade label. Fairtrade guarantees that producers are paid a minimum price and that an additional premium is paid to support social, environmental and development projects. Its limitations are that it only covers certain crops, it does not reward quality, it is not available to growers in more developed countries who can suffer similar exploitation and it does not provide any guarantee of a market. When we have no relationship with a grower (as with the bananas we buy from the Dominican Republic), Fairtrade is the best option; so over 95% of our bananas are Fairtrade certified, as are many of our pineapples and mangoes from West Africa.

Rather than insisting on ethical audits and a paper trail of certification, we think we can benefit suppliers more effectively by building trusting, long-term, mutually beneficial personal relationships. Communication and planning bring two big advantages to this approach; working together to improve quality and providing a secure market. Over 80% of the fruit and veg in the boxes has been grown to a programme developed over many years, with prices agreed before the crop is sown. We have been doing this for many years with our co-op in the UK but this is now increasingly the approach we are using with foreign suppliers.

We also visit our growers as often as possible and invite them to gather at Riverford once a year to eat, discuss the future and exchange ideas. The 2010 gathering is happening next Saturday 6th March; we are expecting 70 growers from the UK and Europe, plus a few from Africa and South America. They are always incredibly enthusiastic about the box scheme; partly for the security it provides but even more for the sense of being valued; something that never comes from a supermarket buyer. For more on how we work with growers overseas see our