Sustainability: fair trade

Nick Jones, managing director of Nexus Collections, discusses the importance of fair trade and suggests what you should look for in a fair trade supplier.





Fair trade practices have become the norm for many western companies and they are becoming an important part of the CSR policies for many businesses around the world. While European laws ensure staff welfare and high standards of employment, many businesses require products or services from further afield. How can anyone hope to claim they are running a socially responsible business if they are sourcing a product—even tea or coffee for the canteen—from an inappropriate source? It is therefore vital that we all take time to consider the whole supply chain when running our businesses.

The gradual success of “Fair Trade” over the last few years has largely been due to strict enforcement of employment, welfare and environmental laws. Recently, the growing public consciousness of using eco-friendly products and services has made companies do more to become green, but there is still work to be done. Such action should not be taken for legal reasons but from a genuine desire to improve the world around us and benefit other people.

According to the Co-operative Bank's annual Ethical Consumerism report, the ethical market in the UK grew by 18 per cent over the last two years, and the Fairtrade mark has become a common sight on our supermarket shelves. To maintain a level of fair trade awareness and achievement many companies ensure that they meet the fair trade standards at every stage of their production. To do so, they issue strict guidelines to suppliers or deal with suppliers that have a sound record of fair trade.

As previously mentioned, supply chain communications are not generally a problem in Europe (although there was the unforgettable story recently of children working on a British potato farm), but they do become a little murkier once we step beyond our own borders, and certainly those of the EU. In countries like China, which dominates the world’s manufacturing and supply, fair trade laws are not strictly enforced. Many companies do not provide healthy working conditions for employees, forcing them to work for long hours at a minimum wage. Unfair treatment of workers has led to labour unrest in China with workers demanding better working conditions, wages and other employment benefits—all of which sound perfectly reasonable to me! 

Out of China’s 200 biggest exporters, 153 are foreign that supply products for the first world. It is a fact that many of the suppliers to these exporters, particularly the local companies, are turning a blind eye to the workers’ demands of higher wages and better working conditions. Clearly, many fair trade and green consumers here in the UK, including businesses, could be purchasing products unaware of their background. All our work to adhere to various standards and other CSR standards become a mockery when the three miles of cable needed to run the broadband in our office come from a far-eastern sweat shop.

Complying with fair trade is important to ensure a decent standard of living for the workers and their families in factories all over the world. It is important that people who make the products we consume are not exploited and have access to proper welfare measures. Environmentally, fair trade can be used as an effective tool to fight climate change. In many countries, the supply of perishable commodities is dwindling due to the exploitation of land and water. The clear message from the Fairtrade movement is that many of the products which we enjoy in Europe, such as coffee, tea, fruit and chocolate are likely to become increasingly scarce and expensive due to climate change. Surely it therefore makes sense to use ethical sources if we hope to continue supplying tea to our staff for another 50 years.

In essence, fair trade is an organised social movement and market-based approach that aims to help producers in developing countries make better trading conditions and promote sustainability. What therefore should you look for in a fair trade supplier? Attributes could include: decent wage policies, healthy working environment like hygienic toilets, recreational facilities, fresh air and clean water and reasonable working shifts. These are all taken for granted here in most of Europe but are considered luxuries for many. The employer must also ensure that the workers have additional employee benefits such as staff holidays. Here at Nexus, we are very conscious about employees’ rights—to such an extent that we recently invested over $200,000 in a state of the art, fair trade factory in China, making it (we believe) the world’s first ethical manufacturing facility for conference bags. Above all, the factory is designed to ensure the highest level of working conditions to its employees.

As a part of our recent developments, the new factory and offices are fully air conditioned and have modern recreational facilities. In a country where employees live on site (often only returning home once per year) we have provided brand new staff quarters with eco friendly hot water supply and a homely feel—rather than the usual “bunk-house” style of accommodation. These facilities have set new standards for Chinese workers in the textile sector with higher wages, staff bonus schemes and additional staff holidays. We have even organised themed parties and upgraded the staff canteen to provide more of the food which the staff enjoys. We believe that the industry must become more CSR focused—the groundwork has been laid but there is still a long way to go and we intend to be a part of that process.

There are other numerous ways to help communities across the world that can be a part of our wider CSR policy. Many NGOs and welfare organisation support families by sponsoring education for children of families working in tea and cocoa plantations. Business can offer donations to such charities across the world.

Fair trade is not just a marketing buzz word, but a prerequisite for ethical business practices in the 21st century. It is our moral responsibility to respect human rights and care for our planet. We need to ensure that our partners and suppliers in the developing world adopt fair trade practices and provide good working conditions and welfare measures for employees. While it is easy to consume cheaper products, it is also imperative to ensure that the products are not made at the cost of human lives and the environment. 

Nick Jones is managing director of Nexus Collections, Europe's largest conference bag supplier to the events industry.