The clothes I wear, the coffee I drink, the food I eat – even that little bit of cheeky chocolate – are all labelled 'fairtrade'. When I buy fairtrade, I walk away feeling good that I just did my bit for the world. But what am I really buying? It seems as though fairtrade has become a commodity – just a way to increase the price and sell to the growing eco-friendly market.
I can't help but ask the question: is fairtrade really good enough?
When I decided to create a socially minded business I took a long, hard look at the fairtrade industry. I saw images of smiling, clean people happily working away in factories – all possible because of the nice man or woman who made it a point to pay them just that little bit more than their competitor.
But how do we define fair? Here we are sitting in our comfy homes, living our comfy lives and that person, half a world away, is working and living in conditions that no one in the developed world could stomach, for a wage that a penniless student wouldn't even get out of bed for. The conditions in marketing material tell me that things are probably better than other local factories in the same industry, but the situation isn't even close to fair.
Shouldn't the factory workers be given the same opportunities and salaries as I am? Shouldn't they have the right to travel, start a business, live in a city, or to earn a wage that can afford the kind of home, consumer electronics, or education that I can?
We know that the world is not fair, but can fairness really exist in a first-world business that employs a third-world workforce? For some businesses, it might be enough to pay their international suppliers a slightly more competitive wage than the status quo. Consumers may also be content to pay just that little bit more for a slice of humanity. For me, as the founder and CEO of Tengri, it wasn't good enough. During my visits to factories in Mongolia, I was flabbergasted by the fact that much of the animal fibre industry (cashmere, camel, sheep and yak wool) is fairtrade and is in fact sold to high-end designer labels. Much of it is shipped to European countries and America, where it is processed and sold in the luxury goods market. If these labels claim to be fairtrade, then why is the whole of Mongolia's animal fibre industry still reliant on government handouts to subsist in the face of a thriving export industry? Why are NGOs still needed? I began to wonder if this is true of many developing countries and the whole of the textile market and fashion industry. Did I uncover a dirty hidden truth?
While in Mongolia, I had a chance to hear from the herders. They said that they never really had a chance to see what the fruits of their labour were. The very people who were supplying the raw materials never saw the end goods, nor would they ever be able to afford any of the products in their lifetime – or several lifetimes.
A woman herder told me "In the countryside, you don't need money to live... you just need the land and animals". The irony was, that she was working for money to save for their young daughter's future education. I had a pit in my stomach when she told me this, because I know what I paid for my education in the west. I had a deep sinking feeling that what she saved would never be enough to buy a decent education, nor would she be offered the same opportunities, just because she was born in Mongolia.