Make it Happen – Choose Fairtrade talks to George Alagiah talks to George Alagiah

With Fairtrade Fortnight less than four weeks away, Ethical Superstore talks to everyone’s favourite newsreader George Alagiah about getting active for Fairtrade; ethics during the credit crunch and his hopes for the future of Fairtrade.

Ethical Superstore: George, you became patron of the Fairtrade Foundation in 2002. How important is this role to you?

George Alagiah: It’s hugely important for me. As a foreign correspondent I witnessed and covered wars, famines and natural disasters and in the end came to the conclusion that while politics is important, much of what I saw could have been prevented or dealt with better if these people had more economic control of their lives. That is what Fairtrade does. It gives people economic control and security.  My role as patron is a chance for me to be part of the solution to the problems I’ve witnessed and previously brought to the public’s attention.

ES: What has convinced you personally that Fairtrade works?

GA: I’ve been to cooperatives in both Sri Lanka and Nicaragua and experienced Fairtrade first hand. You only have to listen to what the farmers and their families say and they tell us what a difference it is making to their lives. Fairtrade does what it says on the tin: it’s a direct exchange where consumers can put money in the hands of people across the world.

ES: Just what do you get up to in your role as patron?

GA: I’m the figurehead and I’ve spent a lot of my time travelling around Britain talking to activists. This is important, as the thing about Fairtrade is it’s only as powerful as the amount of people who continue to buy and support it and that comes from a level of activism and commitment from the general public I meet.

ES: Over this time, you would have experienced the growth of Fairtrade — what have been the most significant developments for you?

GA: You can count success in number of products; you can count success in the value of sales; or you can count success in the number of farmers helped. But perhaps more important than the numbers is the overall change in consumer attitude we’ve witnessed. The numbers will keep rising, and they are rising because of this change in attitude and a change in the way people want to spend their money. To me, this is hugely significant.

ES: And the larger businesses that have got on board with Fairtrade — how important has that been?

GA: Again, I think more important in a way than the amount of Fairtrade products they sell is the notion that they understand that profit and principle do go together — that they are not two separate things.

ES: Fairtrade seems to be weathering the storm in the financial crisis, are you surprised?

GA: It’s reassuring to know that sales haven’t been affected. This reflects the change in the way in which people live their lives — it’s not just a purchase it’s a commitment to making a difference. In that sense I am not surprised. People are saying something more than they want a bar of chocolate. They are saying that they want a bar of chocolate, but one that will also help somebody.

ES: The theme for this years Fairtrade Fortnight (23 Feb-8 Mar) is ‘Make it Happen – Choose Fairtrade’. What is the underlying message?

GA: We are in a global recession and we talk in the rich world about having to be careful with our money and how difficult life is going to be. But imagine what it’s going to be like for those already living on the edge of poverty. If it’s tough for us, it will be much tougher for them. It’s not the time to say, ‘we are hurting so we need to cut back on our purchases of Fairtrade’. I think quite the reverse. We need to be pushing forward in a much bigger way and on a bigger scale, and now is the time to make it happen.

ES: And the record attempt to eat the most Fairtrade bananas in 24 hours this Fairtrade Fortnight — will you be involved?

GA: Yes, (laughs) I’ll be doing my bit of course!

ES: And the future for Fairtrade over the next few years — what should we look out for?

GA: I think it’s a question of scale now. At the moment we help around 7.5 million people –- farmers, workers and their families. This is a huge achievement considering where we started a decade ago. But, there are 10 of millions of farmers just waiting to get involved with the Fairtrade system. In many ways their ability to get involved with the system is limited by the Fairtrade Foundation in terms of the capacity to absorb them. We need a massive intervention in terms of funding to make it possible and bring these farmers on board. It has got to move exponentially in terms of the scale of ambition that we have for Fairtrade and that’s what we should watch out for.

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