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A fair trade advocacy marathon in Brussels

Fair Trade Advocacy Marathon participants at a breakfast meeting

The University of Edinburgh has been committed to fair trade for ten years, responding to student concerns. Like the fair trade movement, the university recognises that trade justice – a trading environment that promotes fair trading rather than exploitation of weaker actors, is crucial, rather than just relying on consumers switching to products that display fair trade labels and claims. With this in mind, I attended a Fair Trade Advocacy Marathon organised by the Fair Trade Advocacy (FTAO) in Brussels on 7th and 8th October 2014.

The FTAO is a member organisation that brings together fair trade movement actors from across Europe to work collectively on lobbying for fairer trade in and with the EU. From the UK, several representatives from the Fairtrade Foundation attended this event. The FTAO also acts as the Secretariat to the European Parliament’s cross-party Fair Trade Working Group, chaired by UK MEP Linda McAvan. The Fair Trade Working Group calls for fair trade to be seen as an ‘alternative economic strategy worth supporting across EU policies, in the EU and its partner countries’ rather than just a consumer-assurance scheme (European Parliament Fair Trade Working Group Q & A).

On day one, the FTAO presented two priority areas for advocacy on trade justice: ‘power in supply chains’ and a proposed ‘European Strategy for Fair Trade’ to cut across different policy areas and levels (e.g. local and regional), to be adopted by the Directorate General for Trade rather than the Directorate General for Development Cooperation. In discussion, the UK’s establishment of Groceries Code Adjudicator in 2013 as highlighted as a step in the right direction to be followed by other EU member states, as it allows anonymous complaints by supply chain actors about supermarkets’ unfair trading practices, independent investigations, and the issuing of fines. Yet it was pointed out that such a system needs to allow complaints from suppliers outside the EU too.

In the afternoon, fair trade actors shared their recent experience lobbying for trade justice in their own countries, and plans for campaigns for the coming year. Participants discussed varying regional and national legislation on fair trade, and approaches of public authorities, for example how to further the Fair Trade Towns and Fair Trade Nations movements. 2015 is the European Year of Development: the European Fair Trade movement is keen to ensure efforts are about trade as well as aid, and an ethical textiles initiative in light of recent high profile garment factory disasters in Asia is envisaged.

Several participants raised the issue that advocating better conditions for workers in developing countries could be more difficult to gain support for in parts of eastern and southern Europe in particular, where standards of living are often low for many workers. Nevertheless, it was felt that there would be growing support for improving conditions overseas as well as at home if the message was communicated in an appropriate way. Participants were also keen to develop consensus among the fair trade movement on how to respond to current negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – with strong concerns about the trade deal’s impact on suppliers.

At the end of the day, FTAO delivered a brief refresher on how the EU institutions work, and made a number of recommendations to prepare participants for day two’s Fair Trade Breakfast. The Fair Trade Breakfast brought together fair trade national actors and MEPs from the different member states with an interest in fair trade. Fair trade refreshments were served, short talks were given by a number of key actors from the fair trade movement, and the national actors encouraged their MEPs to sign up to seven projects to be worked on by the Fair Trade Working Group (which cover issues such as public procurement, development policy post-2015, sustainable consumption policy post-2015, and internal market and competition policy and imbalance of power in supply chains). Fair trade national actors also organised meetings with the Permanent Representatives of their countries in Brussels with similar aims.

Following this event, we hope to develop collaboration with the FTAO and national fair trade actors in several ways – to link universities across Europe and beyond on fair trade, to share experience and expertise on fair trade public procurement, and to encourage the development of research on fair trade and trade justice that is relevant to practitioners and to policy.

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