10 Questions for Sainsbury’s from Colombia!

So,  I’m sitting in a lovely colourful square in Jardín, Colombia, sipping my morning coffee, and trying to take in the horrific, tragic news from Manchester, when another breaking news item  catches my attention. So in a brief and completely unplanned break from pure travel blogging, and I hope you will forgive me, I’m throwing out a few personal reflections on this news from home for a change.

It seems Sainsbury’s is dropping the FAIRTRADE Mark from its biggest selling Red Label and Basics tea, and reinventing its own ‘Fairly Traded’ tea standard. The Fairtrade Foundation says the move will affect 229,000 tea farmers and workers in Africa and Asia, and they can’t endorse the move because they don’t feel it is well enough aligned with their principles, and also because many farmers organisations have said they are not happy about it at all. An open letter from networks of African Fairtrade tea producers states:

We told Sainsbury’s loud and clear: your model will bring about disempowerment. We are extremely concerned about the power and control that Sainsbury’s seeks to exert over us. We work for, OWN our product and OWN our premium. We see the proposed approach as an attempt to replace the autonomous role which Fairtrade brings and replace it with a model which no longer balances the power between producers and buyers.

Those of you who know me well know I worked for 13 years for Fairtrade until earlier this year, and I’ve openly said on many occasions that Sainsbury’s industry-leading switches to Fairtrade of their tea, coffee, bananas were some of the best and proudest moments during my time, led by some truly committed and visionary senior figures there, for whom I have the greatest respect. Right now I feel alarmed, angry and sad seeing the statement from Fairtrade Foundation. However, knowing there are two sides to every story and eager to give the benefit of the doubt, I head to Sainsbury’s own website to see what it has to say. As I read, I can’t help but think pretty much everything Sainsbury’s says it is planning to do, such as pay minimum prices, social premiums, offer additional technical support programmes they were already doing through Fairtrade or could have added onto the existing programme, without all that effort of writing their own standard (which does not appear to be published anywhere), hiring one of the additional ‘big 4’ auditing companies and their exorbitant fees compared to sustainability audit specialists, setting up their own project application systems and additional expert committees, or creating confusing new own-label ‘Fairly Traded’ stamps – for a product like tea for which all that mostly already existed. Talk about duplication and reinventing the wheel. Except with the addition of a real power grab over the rules of production and use of premiums – it appears that Sainsbury’s alone and its self-selected experts will decide how much they will invest, and whose projects will be funded. It isn’t at all clear me how or where farmers have any say in the rules or the management process at all. Or what will or won’t be published in terms of transparency for loyal customers, of which I have been one for many years in Ladbroke Grove.

More than anything I am left with many, many questions that I really hope people will be asking of Sainsbury’s about this move. They do say it is a pilot, so I assume this means it is open to being reviewed, revised or not rolled out if it does not deliver enough difference, so there’s still a lot that could change. Here are some of my questions, feel free to comment below with yours and/or ask them of the supermarket directly, as I am going to do.

Thanks for listening!

Now then, where was I? Oh yes, right here in Jardín, Colombia, drinking coffee with THIS view.

The town is celebrating its 154th birthday today, and in my view has plenty of reason to celebrate – watch this space for more from this amazing place shortly!