Fair Trade – is it a load of old rubbish?

It’s April 2009, and I’m saying goodbye to a cushy job as a creative marketing manager for a games firm; the recession having swung its deathly scythe at this industry, particularly anywhere more than a mile and a half outside London. So, having been given my marching orders, I hastily put together my portfolio and CV (or if you’re a recruiter reading this – painstakingly hand-crafted my portfolio and CV) and set sail on the seas of recruitment.

I should prefix this by saying at this point, I had no idea about ethical or sustainable shopping.  To me, Fairtrade was a buzzword and Organic meant the greenest peas or most orange carrots in the supermarket.  Naturally, the batphone rings almost immediately after I begin looking for a job and I get an interview at a place called ‘Ethical Superstore’.  Ok, I’ve never heard of them so I do what any other person would do – consult my good friend Google to see what they’re about.

Drat, I think.  They’re all hippies!  And that’s exactly my view of Fair Trade and Eco-friendliness; a bunch of dreadlocked layabouts chaining themselves to trees and advocating a free and peaceful existence for animals and plants the world over.

Not to look a free-range, organically-reared gift horse in the mouth, I dig out some smart clothes (no mean feat in itself given I’ve worked mostly from home for almost 2 years) and head down there to Team Valley, Gateshead.  The first thing to hit me as I arrived was the smell; the air was filled with neither the scent of hemp nor joss sticks.  Odd, I think to myself, the hippies must all be meditating in the warehouse or rescuing fallen leaves from the car park around the back.

Look, no hippies!

The reception area looks normal, no statues of Buddha or abandoned tambourines strewn across the floor and I’m greeted with the most unexpected sight of the morning… two *normal* people! They’re even dressed in normal clothes! Admittedly one, Dan, is a scouser, but I’ll not hold that against him for the purposes of this interview, although I did make a subconscious note to lock my car.

And that’s when it begins to dawn on me – this fair trade malarkey might actually be for normal people.

Fast forward from Wednesday to Monday, and I’m driving in for my first day (I probably should be cycling or wafting or whatever it is that these eco-friendly types do) and I start to get to grips with the job and the lifestyle.  I realise that I don’t have to wear linen pants or not wash my hair to be eco-friendly, and I don’t have to make life-affirming trips to poverty-stricken villages in the middle east to give smaller, independent producers a helping hand, I can do this simply by buying pretty much what I’d normally buy, just with a little more sense from where it’s from and how it’s made.

Coffee’s the first thing.  I’m a 3 cups a day man, and it’s usually [insert common household brand name here who may or may not also manufacture two-fingered biscuits] who I learn don’t have a stellar record when it comes to ethics.  I look at the likes of Cafédirect, and I realise that Fairtrade is just that; it’s trading fairly and responsibly.  It’s not a high-and-mighty purchase decision, it’s just a way of me saying “Hey, farmer, thanks for the coffee! I know some buyers will rip you off, so I’m happy to give you a fair price for your hard work – have a sit down and a biscuit!”.  It might cost a few pence more, but it tastes a few pence better (yes, pennies are a lesser-known unit of taste measurement) and the farmers get a few pence more for their efforts – everybody’s happy!

I’m also introduced to certified organic products, which is a genuine eye-opener for me.  Like I’ve said, my idea of organic is synonymous with expensive, and equally exchangeable with the word ‘vegetable’.  But, it’s not!  Blimey, you can get Organic clothing, sun tan lotion, shampoo, kids drinks and, most importantly, you can even get ORGANIC CRISPS!

Far from having to endure a rite of passage by living naked in the woods for a month to understand nature and be enabled to purchase Organic products, I realise that Organic is just another way of saying “Free from rubbish” and, yet again, it’s simply another purchase decision and not a massive lifestyle change.  It’s another way of saying, “Hey, this has no crappy artificial fertilisers, nasty pesticides and isn’t linked to animal cruelty”.  And you have to agree, that’s nothing special – it should be standard.  Of course, it’s a little more expensive – a vat full of chemicals is far cheaper than spending the time ensuring your soil is suitably nutrient-rich or your cows aren’t fed on an assortment of drugs and steroids. But, well, you get why it’s better to pay that little bit more to not cover your body in pesticides or artificially-fattened meat (Here’s looking at you, Gaga).

Saving energy – it’s, well, simple!

I’ll tell you what though, and I’ll tell you it for free, the biggest thing for me was when I nabbed a Wattson energy monitor to test for a couple of weeks, it hit home (literally) how much money and energy I wasted around the house.  I hadn’t even heard of an energy monitor until I started working here, but here’s this daft white box in my hallway which minds its merry business and glows an assortment of crazy colours to tell me how much energy I’m using. It’s broken though, it just constantly glows red, but I soon realise this means I’m using far more than my average when I first turned it on.  I’m a dweeb for tech, so I have a media streamer, a networked hard drive and an assortment of gadgetry and home theatre dotted sporadically around my house, and it becomes a game to then switch this myriad of energy drainers off one by one to identify and execute the cuplrit by firing squad in my back garden.

It was simple really.  It’s my Sky+ HD Box and my networked hard drive – both of which I leave constantly on.  As soon as I turn them off, the rageful red transcends into a ribena-esque purple and then blue when I toddle off to bed, and I realise I’ve just saved energy – and money too.  I don’t have to recycle my rainwater or bathe in the River Tyne or wear all of my clothes during the Winter to save energy, I just have to know that turning something off when I’m not using it saves energy – simple eh?

If I can, you can.

I think we’re all guilty of it really, it’s often seen as too much effort to turn an appliance off, reach for a switch or research all of your groceries before you buy them.  But that’s what I’ve come to learn in my two years here – it’s genuinely not an effort at all.

Fair trade and ethical consumerism isn’t (or is no longer!) the preserve of the poncho-and-sandal wearing eco-freak.  If it’s easy enough for an anti-debonair Geordie gentleman, not unlike myself, to look for a Fairtrade or Organic label when I shop, or to remember to switch off my Sky box at the wall at night (unless, of course, I’m recording Desperate Housewives) then it’s easy enough for anyone.

Buy Fairtrade, buy organic, buy recommended energy-saving products.  It’s simple, just look for the label or buy from stores who source ethically, wholefoods markets, local producers and, of course, your friendly chaps here at Ethical Superstore. It’s not a load of rubbish; each little bit we do genuinely helps the planet, helps small cooperatives around the world, helps animals live cruelty-free and helps us conserve our natural resources – and it couldn’t be easier to be part of it.  Now, where’s my tie dye…

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  • Katy Holden

    Great article Andy – you did make me chuckle! Being a fairtrade, ethical and eco friendly (and normal) person, I’m amazed how many people with your (previous) views are still out there! When are the population going to wake up and get on board?! It all stems from LOVE for people and the planet – just as God intended! Welcome aboard the journey 🙂

  • Hi Andy, it is so true what you say. I’ve been someone for many years who tries to make informed choices and is respectful of the Earth. I’m a home educator too so I don’t really stand a chance. People are outwardly thrown by the fact that I do not resemble a member of what is still widely regarded as the lentil and bean brigade.