Shaftesbury has been a Fair Trade Town since 2008 and Bimport resident, Arthur Simmonds, has been one of the main drivers of this initiative.
Arthur worked in Africa and saw how communities could benefit when farmers and producers are paid fairly for their crops and products. Keri Jones from ThisIsAlfred met the Fair Trade Group as they prepare for Fair Trade Fortnight, next month.
Arthur explained why he set up a local branch. “I spent the first years of my teaching career in Uganda and it gave me the idea that people were very keen to improve their lives,” said Arthur. “They were starting to grow cash crops in Africa. People could use the money to educate their kids and get medical treatment. So when I came back from Africa, Oxfam were starting to produce products, notably coffee, down the road from where I was working, a place called Bukoba. That factory was producing its own instant coffee. It was being sold in this country. I thought that I should try promoting it.”
At first, the product wasn’t perfect. “Lots of people told me that it tasted like sandpaper,” said Arthur. “ So I said, ‘it doesn’t matter about that. What’s important is that you’re supporting these people out in Africa’. Then I got involved with something called Trade Craft, that draws in lots of stuff from all over the world. Not just foods, but also crafts. I’ve been a “fair trader’, a voluntary representative, ever since.”
Arthur wasn’t working alone for long. A group of locals who felt strongly about Fair Trade came together. “In 2004, I managed to persuade a number of other people to join me to make up a Fair Trade group with the aim of Shaftesbury becoming a Fair Trade town. That happened in 2008.”
Group member Ann Wilkins says the initiative has been well supported by the town’s organisations and authorities. “We’ve had fantastic support over the last ten years, both from Town Council reps and also from the Mayors. You have to have links with cafes and shops that sell Fair Trade products. And you have to have enough in your local area for the size of population. We’ve done lots over the years with the schools and churches, many of which are Fair Trade churches,” Ann said.
In Africa, Arthur has seen how the Fair Trade movement has helped producers to help themselves. “Quite a few farmers who produce something like coffee didn’t have the transport to get it to the market. It was taken to a central place. And I don’t think they always got a very good deal,” said Arthur. “It’s all organised by very large multinationals. They are often running vast enterprises – they can knock down the price and people tend to go for their product rather than Fair Trade. So we have to make a case that Fair Trade is really good idea. Fair Trade Foundations started up around about the year 2000.”
Producers were encouraged to work together by forming cooperatives. It’s a case of strength in numbers, and Arthur’s experience is that independent Fair Trade businesses often act more responsibly than some multinationals. “The smaller producers are much more ethical in the way they do things. For example, banana producers on the small island of Saint Lucia do not aerial spray their bananas. But some of the large banana internationals spray the whole crop with planes, including some of the people who are working in the plantations!” said Arthur.
Shaftesbury Fair Trade Group member Lesley Evans accepts that customers buying Fair Trade goods may pay a little bit more, but she says that they’re effectively making a donation at the same time. “You’re paying a fair price. You are giving people more money for whatever they produce, and you give them a premium on top of that which goes towards increasing facilities in their communities – for example, building schools, hospitals and clinics,” said Lesley.
She believes that it’s important that we help people who are not as well off as we are in North Dorset. “For me, it’s a moral issue. A lot of the products, things like chocolate and coffee and tea, are actually luxuries. We don’t need them for our nutrition. And if somebody is getting paid so little that they can’t afford to feed their own families, so we can have cheap luxury goods, it’s not morally acceptable to me.”
Lesley says the range of Fair Trade goods is getting bigger by the day. “There’s coffee, all sorts of tea, from black tea, green tea and redbush tea. There’s rice, quinoa, pasta, chocolate, sugar, marmalade, biscuits of all sorts, chilli nut bars, olive oil and there are household products,” explained Lesley. “Maybe people don’t realise that a lot of household products are made with palm oil. We stock sustainable palm oil. We have rubber gloves, toilet rolls, kitchen towels and soap. If you want it, you can get it Fair Trade.”
There are some unexpected items on the Fair Trade goods list too. “Non-food items also include flowers, footballs and gold has become a new area. Fair Trade gold!” added Ann. “There are thousands of products that now carry the Fair Trade mark, including many different choices for things like tea, coffee and chocolate. If the first thing that somebody tries is not something they like, try something else because there’s lots of choice out there.”
Today, with many more producers and an expanded selection, Arthur says the initial concerns voiced over coffee with a ‘sandpaper’ taste are no longer valid. “The thing that makes me see red is when someone says, ‘I don’t like Fair Trade coffee’. I say to them, ‘Which are the 700 different types have you tried?’ One of the problems that we have in our society is that a lot of people are very loyal to certain brands. They don’t know the brand that I have got, so they are suspicious about it. They think, possibly, it’s not a hygienic product because it comes from Africa and that sort of prejudice still exists, I’m afraid,” said Arthur.
Fair Trade produce comes from many more places than just Africa, though. Ann advised me that goods are sourced from many developing nations in Asia and South America. Back home in Britain, it’s becoming easier to find Fair Trade food. Lesley says you can even enjoy responsibly sourced drinks and snacks on the M3 motorway. “At Fleet Services, there’s a cafe called Tossed, which has all Fair Trade things. Coffee, tea, chocolate, and so on.”
And Fair Trade products are now easier to find around Shaftesbury, the Vale and Chase. “We’ve got this thing called the Fair Trade directory,” said Ann. “We went around Shaftesbury asking all the different businesses and shops if they were involved with Fair Trade. We wanted to try and increase the range. A lot of village shops are owned by their local community and operated by volunteers, and they’re very aware of ethical fair trade issues in a way that perhaps larger shops are not. That was what gave us the idea and that’s very recent.”
Ann pointed out that locals can buy Fair Trade goods in town at least once a week. “At Bell Street United Church, on Fridays, we have a Trade Craft sale between 10am and 12noon. On the first Saturday in the month, Arthur is at the Farmers Market. He has a stall there. We take the opportunity wherever we can to promote Fair Trade,” said Ann.
Although many people purchase specialist products on websites, Arthur says that Shaftesbury’s Fair Trade shoppers have remained loyal and they appear not to have switched to online retailers. “Shaftesbury is quite a small place and people still do their shopping in the town. We’re based very centrally. People come to the Farmers Market to buy fresh local produce and we’re there with the range of Fair Trade, which is completely complimentary to the local produce,” said Arthur.
If you want to find out more, this Shaftesbury group will mark Fair Trade Fortnight with a special event where you can chat about the initiative and sample the products. “We have a Fair Trade tea sale and promotion of goods and information at the Friend’s Meeting House during the afternoon of Saturday, 9th March. Everything there will be Fair Trade,” said Ann.