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Mass balancing vs Producer story? You decide!

sugar cane4

This post is to give the ‘uninformed’ consumer an insight into the problems facing Fair Trade companies who now struggle to compete with the mass balanced market when sourcing coffee, tea, sugar, cocoa and fruit juice.

Social businesses, like ours, are struggling to use the connection between the producer and the consumer – our USP – because of the lack of understanding of the complexity the system has caused.

If you just want to see more FAIRTRADE Marked products, from the big players like Cadbury’s, then there is a cost to the small producer who cannot meet the demand for their crops. Hence Fair Trade companies have a huge role to play in supporting these small marginalised producers to bring their products to the UK market by telling their story.

You should not just pay lip service to Fair Trade by quoting the 10 WFTO principles  – you need to believe that open, honest and transparent working is the only way to grow fair trade markets and change international trade rules. The Charter of Fair Trade explains that with the fair trade movement working together it is possible to ensure the principles of fair trade do not get lost!

The FINE criteria defines fair trade as ‘a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency, and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. Fair trade organizations, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising, and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.’

Whilst the FAIRTRADE Mark has been hugely successful it is virtually impossible for Commercial Licensees, and especially the big players like Cadbury’s, to change their whole business ethos to engage with open, honest and transparent trading relationships throughout the whole supply chain.

Campaigning and Advocacy work is crucial to Fair Trade companies and an integral part of their commitment to growing Fair Trade markets. The Fairtrade Foundation do this, on behalf of the Commercial Licensees, by running successful campaigns during Fairtrade Fortnight to increase sales of FAIRTRADE Marked products.

When mass balance was introduced I do not believe that the consumer/devotee of the FAIRTRADE Mark, was totally made aware of the effect this would have on the smaller FLO co-operatives who could not meet the supply and demand needed for the big players.

There was also an uncertainty that their product would  now be bought to make up the mass balance quota because the direct trading relationship was becoming blurred.

Before mass balancing you could pick up a jar of coffee and read about the producer group that was receiving the FLO premium. The producer was visible in the supply chain. Cafedirect, as a Fair Trade company, can still do this, and that connection is so important for the consumer.

Mass balancing has removed the ability to tell the story on the majority of packaging because the commodity is sourced from several FLO certified cooperatives. And herein lies our story of how paying lip service to the underlying principles of fair trade, and manipulation of  the FLO system, affected our ability to bring the story back to the packaging and the end of a vision.

Living in Scotland,  a Fair Trade Nation, that has strong links with Malawi we decided we wanted to support Kasinthula Canegrowers to help clear their huge debt (you can read about this on the internet).

Kasinthula, was the first FLO certified cooperative, and we felt that by forging links with a Scottish manufacturer, it would see us reach our goal to bring the trading connection back to a personal level. As Scotland had declared itself a Fair Trade Nation we felt the stage was now set to instil consumer confidence that their purchase really would make a difference to this cooperative.

We were then approached – quite coincidentally – by a manufacturer who wanted to continue to tell the Malawi story on their packaging. Their supplier had suddenly stopped supplying them with the FLO certified sugar from Malawi and they asked us if we could import for them.

Our first task was to arranged for the sugar to be shipped direct from Malawi into Greenock – a new route, re-establishing links with the town’s connection with the sugar industry, and increasing the USP of this product!

We then tried, unsuccessfully, for 4 years, to convince the manufacturer that unless ALL the sugar – for their FAIRTRADE Marked products – came from Malawi  via us – then they should not tell the Malawi story on their packaging.

We explained our position that buying mass balanced sugar from their usual supplier, and a minimum amount from us, was not in the ‘spirit of fair trade’ and would be ‘fooling’ the consumer into thinking they are helping Malawi canegrowers by purchasing this product.

Our efforts were impeded because the Fairtrade Foundation insisted that under mass balancing ANY story from a FLO certified sugar cooperative could be used as it was about promoting the FAIRTRADE Mark! We had lengthy email conversations to try and resolve this but to no avail.

We tried to convince the Fairtrade Foundation that our vision was to eventually use a genuine photograph of the manufacturer, with the cooperative,  once all the FLO certified was coming from Malawi. To our utter surprise the Fairtrade Foundation supplied the manufacturer with one of their own producer photographs – incidentally not from Malawi – to use on their packaging.

As the Fairtrade Foundation own all the rights to their producer photographs, under mass balancing any photograph can be used, as promoting the FAIRTRADE Mark is the sole purpose of the Fairtrade Foundation.

There are still UK manufacturers using the Kasinthula cane growers story whilst purchasing mass balanced sugar. The result is that the FLO premium is NOT going to the cane growers in Malawi but to other cooperatives, on the back of the Kasinthula story.

This was confirmed to me recently when a Licensee – that was using the Kasinthula Story on their packaging – told me ‘don’t worry about what is on the packaging – just enjoy the contents!’ Unfortunately being told 10 minutes earlier that they no longer source sugar from Malawi – we were unable to enjoy the product!

If you want to support a particular country/producer group you need to buy from an importer who has a direct trading relationship with the cooperative and you can read their story on the packaging.

If a product is using mass balanced sugar surely it should read ‘sugar sourced from various FLO certified cooperatives’.

So there is a choice on which product you buy  –  to promote the FAIRTRADE Mark or support the small cooperative gain access to the lucrative UK Fair Trade market.

Information is power and should be used to inform not confuse!