Tea growers are turning their back on the Fairtrade Foundation, claiming the organisation has “lost the plot”.
The Grocer can reveal that one of the first major tea farmers to go Fairtrade in 2006 has withdrawn its support for Fairtrade Foundation.
Williamson Tea - producer of 23 million kilos of tea a year, or the equivalent of one-fifth of total UK tea consumption - is well-known for its high ethical standards and high-quality tea. One industry insider said it was “Fairtrade in all but name” before the mark was established. But it has found it impossible to keep up with the demands of the Fairtrade Foundation.
“We have become increasingly concerned with some of the operations and personnel of the Fairtrade Foundation certification bodies - in particular when they have threatened the integrity of our commercial operations,” said Williamson Tea chairman Philip Magor in a letter to others in the industry. “Whilst we have tried to resolve these matters we have not been convinced that such behaviour is taken as seriously by the Fairtrade Foundation as we do.”
Other tea farmers have also become disillusioned. One large grower said high fees and increasingly onerous paperwork made it difficult to maintain support.
There are also concerns about transparency. The grower said rules kept changing and audits were inconsistent so certification meant different things in different places. He also said that despite the premium consumers pay for Fairtrade tea on supermarket shelves, very little money reached workers and restrictive Fairtrade rules prevented them from spending it how they wished.
“They’ve lost the plot. They have silly ideas about what constitutes welfare - the people on the ground are not really benefiting,” he said. Another said it had a “paternalistic attitude that was inappropriate in this day and age”.
In place of Fairtrade certification, Williamson Tea has launched its own Williamson Tea Foundation to support employees and communities in the areas of health and education.
Other growers are also understood to be considering leaving Fairtrade. The loss of support could make it harder for retailers and suppliers to source enough Fairtrade tea of the requisite quality, warned one. All Marks & Spencer’s tea is Fairtrade, as is Sainsbury’s own-label.
The Fairtrade Foundation said it was working to make Fairtrade as robust and cost-effective as possible. It said it was also improving producer representation at the highest levels of the movement.
“The highest governing authority of the Fairtrade system is the general assembly which will, as of the next meeting in June, have 50% producer representation,” it said.