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Expert Comment: Taking the fairness pledge

Wednesday 1 October 2014

As Fairtrade launches The Great British Fairness Debate in order to promote fairly-traded goods, Tony Bradley (Revd), Associate Director, SEED, Liverpool Hope Business School, explains what the campaign is all about.

How fair are you? In small rooms across the country, usually attached to libraries or town halls – decorated with Union flags – groups of people gather to stand and pledge their allegiance to the Queen and the United Kingdom. These people are new to this country and are becoming citizens. When asked why they have come to Britain and want to share in UK citizenship they often answer something like: “because this is a fair country”, or “people’s rights are respected here” or “you’re treated equally and fairly in the UK”.

But, what does ‘fairness’ mean and are we fair? In classical terms, fairness (or equity) means to ‘give every person their due, to treat people with respect, dignity and equal worth’. In the run-up to the last General Election the issue of fairness – as Britain began to emerge from ‘the Great Recession’ – was called into question. And, in the light of current potential policies to freeze welfare benefits for working-age people – but not pensioners – the question of Government and social policy fairness has re-emerged with a vengeance. Fairness will, again, be a core issue as we approach May, 2015.

Over the next few weeks the Fairtrade Foundation, in the UK, is running ‘The Great British Fairness Debate’. You can take a test to see how fair you are! You can follow the “Fairness Story” as they see it. And you can “Make a Pledge”, [http://befair.fairtrade.org.uk/make-a-pledge/ ] not to Queen and Country, but to buy FairTrade bananas, chocolate, drinking chocolate or organic coffee (from Taylor’s of Harrogate). And, that’s where the fairness debate becomes a bit trickier to work out.

When we are relating to people we know, like friends and family, with whom we have a direct relationship, we find fairness quite easy to assess. Even in the context of broader inter-personal, formal relationships, where regulations are in place, such as in marking assessments or negotiating learning pathways at University, fairness is not that hard, at least in principle. But, as soon as others are acting on our behalf to deliver fairness it’s complicated.

When decisions are being made by Government about fair distributions we need to take their impact into account on a whole range of social groups. So, as with the welfare debate, organisations such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) will calculate the details of equitable shares and impacts for each demographic[1]. And, of course, these turn out to be highly political and can create real tensions. Even more complex are questions of fairness that involve international distributions, especially for goods and services that are delivered through a variety of market mechanisms. Unrestricted markets are, quite definitely, not fair.

Which is where the FairTrade Foundation comes in. Personally, I have been a strong supporter and advocate of FairTrade for more than 30 years. I am delighted about Liverpool Hope University’s FairTrade stance. It does, genuinely, give small-scale producers a greater share of the distributed economic benefits back up the supply chain (cutting-out many of the ‘middlemen’). 

Yet, I know that advantaging Windward Island small-scale banana growers may unfairly disadvantage growers in Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Equally, I see that the stalling of the WTO’s (World Trade Organisation’s) Doha Round of free trade talks (free and fair are not the same thing!), yet again, a week ago, on 23rd September, means that international agreements on fair agriculture are seen very differently in different regions.

So, are you fair? Are we fair as a nation? The answer is quite likely to be: “I’m fair so far as I can be, to the people and actions that I’m directly connected to.” But, my fairness may not extend even as far as the supermarket checkout[2]. As to the Great Fairness Debate, it is much broader than even that proposed by the Fair Trade Foundation. Even so, I may want to start somewhere. Fancy that Fair Trade banana – well, why not make a pledge?



[1] See the IFS Report: http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/5246 [last accessed September 30th, 2014].

[2] For a very detailed study of actual fairness by so-called ‘ethical consumers’ see Devinney, T.M., Auger, P. and Eckhardt, G. M. 2010. The Myth of the Ethical Consumer. Cambridge: University Press.

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