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Opinions were fast and furious last week reacting to Nestle’s decision to source their Kit Kat bars (sold in the UK and Ireland) from Fair Trade certified producers. Below, Nick Reid (Sales Department) adds his voice to the discussion.

On December 7th, Nestle SA, the world’s largest food company, announced it will convert their entire line of “four-fingered” Kit Kat bars in the UK and Ireland to Fair Trade-certified chocolate. The news was released with the support of the Fairtrade Foundation, the UK certifier of Fair Trade, and the Arch-Bishop of York. British Kits Kats (not to be confused with their American counterparts, which are licensed to Hershey’s) are the second best-selling chocolate bar in the UK, and will increase its Fair Trade chocolate sales by £43 million. The announcement has been viewed with skepticism due to Nestle’s corporate notoriety; including several lawsuits filed against the company as recently as 2007 accusing Nestle of allowing human rights abuses and child slavery/trafficking on cocoa plantations in West Africa.

My gut reaction to Nestle’s announcement on Monday was largely indignation and skepticism- Nestle being one of the least socially-responsible corporations in the world. Given that the International Labor Rights Forum voted Nestle in the Top 5 “5 Worst Companies for the Right to Associate” on their “Working for Scrooge 2008” list; the corporation’s commitment to empowering small farmers and building a just, alternative economic model seems laughable. I’m not alone; the news has caused quite a controversy, with many Fair Trade organizations and social activists lambasting the initiative and lining up in opposition… But, I find the foaming, rabid ideologue in me giving way to a more practical, worldly view; I have to say I’m not as critical as some.

I can’t say I share the optimism of the Fairtrade Foundation (the UK certifying agency, similar to Transfair in the US) who calls it “a huge step towards tipping the balance of trade in favour of disadvantaged cocoa producers.” (Fairtrade Foundation PR). The deal will affect a tiny percentage of the world’s cacao production; and just one of Nestle’s hundreds of products- “a tiny step…” might be more appropriate… But neither am I as pessimistic as Joe Turner, who wrote “A Black Day For Fair Trade“, on his civil society finance blog. Although I agree with almost everything he writes (and I recommend his article), I cannot disregard the positive impact the “conversion” will have for the 6,000 farmers of the Kavokiva Cooperative in Cote D’Ivoire, and I can’t imagine the Fairtrade seal on Kit Kat’s “devalues all those smaller (Fair Trade) brands…”

Henry Wallop summed it best in his article in the Telegraph when he wrote, “The announcement has been welcomed… helping the company to secure a public relations coup, after being dogged by bad publicity dating back to the late 1970s…” Nestle’s interest in Fair Trade is, clearly, a profit-driven marketing ploy. And I have no doubt they’re currently busting a union somewhere, squeezing whatever poor company provides Kit Kat’s “cream-filled wafers”, and cooking up some toxic ink to cut costs on Kit Kat packaging… Despite their motivation, Nestle embracing Fair Trade has the potential to impact millions of farmers and consumers for the better.

I will leave an analysis of all the ways this is ruining Fair Trade to Joe Turner, and I do encourage everyone to read his article. I would like to offer my own list;

6 Reasons (Even Though I’m Underwhelmed) This Isn’t All Bad.

 

  1. It’s not plantations. Unlike the majority of certified products, Fair Trade certification of cacao (and coffee) is only available to small-farmer cooperatives like Kavokiva or CONACADO (our primary supplier, a Dominican cooperative), not plantations or agri-business. Access to markets for small farmers has been at the core of the Fair Trade movement since the beginning; when farmers around the globe were forced to compete with colonial or neo-colonial plantations and commercial “firms” to export their products. Fair Trade provided much-needed business and stable prices to farmers when others (like Nestle) would not. That hasn’t changed.
  2. Who buys Kit Kats, anyway? Not to make light of this situation, but I think I’ve had, maybe, one Kit Kat in the past five years. I seriously doubt there are many Brits who have been settling for a Divine chocolate bar because of their commitment to Fair Trade, just waiting, impatiently for Kit Kits to finally get that certification. I think it more likely there are hundreds of thousands of people who regularly eat Kit Kats, that have either heard little or nothing about Fair Trade, but will continue to eat them regardless (the price of the bars will not change, according to Nestle, which does make me question the specifics of the deal). Who’s to say they won’t see the seal and be inspired to learn more. I seriously doubt the move will alienate many consumers- the committed ones will find “better” alternatives.
  3. A little confusion is not a bad thing/Fair Trade is not a panacea. One of the greatest challenges to fair traders has been the need to educate consumers. It has certainly been one of our primary concerns at Equal Exchange; this blog itself the product of our (one-person) “Education and Campaigns” department. If nothing else, inviting a notorious, morally-bankrupt, multinational corporation into the fold is sure to raise a few eyebrows. The fact is, Fair Trade is not the answer to all of the world’s problems, and all Fair Trade is not equal. If nothing else, this is further evidence for the need (and hopefully powerful motivation) for consumers to ask questions and make informed decisions about the products we all consume. The same can be said for the organic industry, where corporate agri-business is now deeply-entrenched; and the “Local” movement, which lacks a national standard or certification…
  4. Any certification is better than none. That’s a bold statement (I don’t always believe it myself), but, moving forward there is a standard to which we can hold Nestle, and a commitment to some degree of transparency. We may have some concerns about the certification and auditing processes, but compared to no standards and no auditing in the past, I have to assume this is a step in the right direction for a corporation like Nestle. It provides a baseline for the way Nestle works with some of its farmers.
  5. You can never go back. As Joe Turner points out, the commodity price for cacao is so high at the moment, that Nestle really won’t be paying much more… but one of the primary goals of Fair Trade is to provide stability to farmers (minimum price) separate from the commodity market. Of course, the cost of raw cacao could plummet and Nestle could decide it really isn’t worth certifying their four-fingered, British Kit Kats anymore, but it is significantly more difficult to greenwash that transition. I may believe getting certified is a marketing ploy, but it does require Nestle to use the language of social and economic justice… it’s hard to abandon that language with any dignity.
  6. Consumers can encourage forward momentum. It’s much easier for consumers to push Nestle to certify the rest of its lines- if Nestle really does believe in “Creating Shared Value” and “helping cacao farmers, their families and their communities”… why are just the Kit Kats in the UK Fair Trade-certified? Why not in the US? (American Kit Kats are actually a Hershey product) Why not all Nestle products? And it’s useful in encouraging other chocolate companies to make the same move, or better yet, out-do Nestle and raise the ante a little bit.

 

In the end, my greatest concern for the Fair Trade movement is that Nestle’s involvement (and lack of real commitment to change) will only further emphasize the perceived importance of “price” and “seals”, to the detriment of people and relationships. Fair Trade is about empowering people and communities, not “helping farmers” in a philanthropic or patriarchal sense. It’s about putting a face on the products we consume, connecting consumers to producers… and in doing so, building an alternative economic system that values people, solidarity and justice.

Nestle does not represent progressive change; the company will continue to do as little as possible just to become certified. While it may benefit from the work the movement has accomplished, what does Nestle understand about farmers, solidarity or justice? Regardless of what Nestle does or doesn’t do, this action won’t change what Equal Exchange has set out to accomplish, or the importance of our message. I have faith that true Fair Trade organizations will continue pushing the movement forward; telling the story, putting farmers first, and setting the bar even higher.

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