Ethical dilemmas in supermarket visit

20:08, May 27 2014
COMPLICATED: Shopping is a stressful business, but surely nothing can go wrong in buying Fairtrade bananas.

I've just been supermarket shopping and I have to admit that as usual I found it a bit of a harrowing experience.

It's not just the frustration of having to negotiate your way around shoppers who create a laager with their trolleys while they idly chat with long-lost friends who they haven't seen since ... oh, last supermarket day.

No, it's also the meaningful decisions you have to make. Do you opt for the cereal with the red tick that looks and tastes like the sweepings from the bottom of an aviary, or do you opt for the brand with no tick that you know you'll enjoy eating much more but is probably loaded with more sugar than the Cuban economy?

And then there's the dilemma over the country of origin. These days, when seemingly everything from garlic to garters seems to originate in China, it's becoming increasingly difficult to support local businesses.

Even some meat commodities that claim to be New Zealand produce are sometimes only manufactured here using foreign ingredients.

Going shopping is like taking out an insurance policy: you have to read the small print very carefully to ensure you are getting what you think you are paying for. When I get back from a weekly supermarket stint I have to go and lie down in a darkened room to rest my sore eyes.


And then there's the ethical aspect to buying the groceries.

I like to think I've got a bit of a social conscience so I try to buy eggs that have been laid by chickens which have not been living in conditions that are the avian equivalent of Auschwitz. But then you face the dilemma of paying an absolute premium for free range eggs or, with a nod to the budget, settling for eggs laid by hens living in a barn. And, of course, you have only the producer's label to go by. How big is the barn, for instance? And how many hens are in there?

This, of course, leads us to the Fairtrade labels. For several years now we have been purchasing FT coffee and, more recently when they became available, FT bananas.

Surely it was impossible to go wrong supporting an organisation set up in Britain a quarter of a century ago by Oxfam and the Women's Institute. Since then Fairtrade has grown into one of the most trusted ethical schemes, delivering better returns to more than 1.2 million farmers and workers around the world.

At least that's what I've always thought. But within an hour of returning from my latest shopping expedition and stowing away my FT products I came across a British report that says sales of Fairtrade-certificated products in Uganda and Ethiopia are not benefiting poor farm workers because the benefits are not trickling down.

A UK government-sponsored study that investigated the production of flowers, coffee and tea in Ethiopia and Uganda, found that "where Fairtrade flowers were grown, and where there were farmers' groups selling coffee and tea into Fairtrade certified markets, wages were very low".

One of the authors of the report, Christopher Cramer, an economics professor at the University of London, claimed: "Wages in other comparable areas and among comparable employers producing the same crops but where there was no Fairtrade certification were usually higher and working conditions better. In our research sites, Fairtrade has not been an effective mechanism for improving the lives of wage workers, the poorest rural people."

Oh brilliant, so I've been paying more for coffee and bananas just so it can line the pockets of unscrupulous middlemen. It's just like being mugged in the supermarket aisles.

Well, perhaps not. Fairtrade International responded to the report by saying that report's authors were comparing apples with pears, to use a mixed produce metaphor. The organisation said the report's conclusions were unfair and generalised. "In several places it compares wages and working conditions of workers in areas where small-scale Fairtrade-certified tea and coffee farmers were present with those on large-scale plantations in the same regions.

"The report itself identifies farm size, scale and integration into global trade chains as major factors influencing conditions for wage workers, but then its conclusions appear to be based on unfair and distorted comparisons between farms and organisations of dramatically different size, nature and means."

In addition, the organisation said, workers with Fairtrade-certified organisation usually benefited in other ways, too, with better working conditions, free meals, overtime payments and loans to workers.

Call me a socialist cynic but I do wonder about the veracity of a report sponsored by a big business-loving UK government, especially as the report focuses on only a small part of FT's worldwide operation.

Nevertheless it all makes the weekly shopping stint that much more complicated and an exercise in ethical selections.

However, I may be a mug but I'll continue to buy FT-branded coffee and bananas but I'll be sensible and buy our eggs from a local producer, which is a more sensible choice anyway.

That way I won't be putting all our ethical eggs in one basket.

The Timaru Herald