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An update on the University’s fair trade journey

Monday 29th February – Sunday 13th March is Fairtrade Fortnight; Research and Policy Manager Liz Cooper reflects on what this means for The University of Edinburgh and how staff and students can get involved.

The University of Edinburgh has been publicly committed to fair trade since it became a Fairtrade University in 2004. However, what this commitment means has evolved over the years.

In the early and mid-2000s, fair trade was a popular theme for student campaigning, and the fair trade movement was rapidly growing in popularity among consumers in the UK and beyond. Many University staff supported the campaigns and consumer movement, and substantial efforts were made to procure fair trade products for the University – from tea and coffee, to fruit and sugar, and more recently, rice and cotton products. A number of academics at the University, and many students from different disciplines, have carried out research on fair trade, and many courses have incorporated fair trade into discussions and projects. A wide range of events have been hosted over the years, in particular during Fairtrade Fortnight – from fair trade football matches, to wine tasting, to hosting fair trade producers from developing countries. Until recently, a Fair Trade Steering Group brought together staff and students to plan further awareness raising and procurement activities in the University and EUSA (these discussions now take place within broader SRS forums). We continue to collaborate with external actors on fair trade, including the Edinburgh Fairtrade City Group, Fair Trade Cross-Party Group at the Scottish Parliament, and other universities.

In recent years, fair trade has not been such a hot topic for student campaigners. For some, this may be because they consider significant progress has been made in terms of awareness-raising and availability of fair trade products, and see newer topics, such as divestment, as more pressing. Yet others are questioning whether fair trade really works, and whether the original concept has been diluted by the introduction of Fairtrade labelling onto big brand products. These debates are ongoing within the fair trade movement itself, and we feel the University, with its focus on knowledge, has a role to play in questioning current practices, and even proposing new ones where appropriate through research and collaboration with industry. Whether producers and workers in global supply chains are getting a fair deal and decent livelihoods is clearly an important question that should not be neglected. If the image of the fair trade movement today does not resonate with student activists, there are opportunities to reframe what fairness in trade means in ways that speak to contemporary student audiences.

Today, Fairness in Trade and Sustainable Procurement is one of the programme areas of the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, which involves close collaboration with the Procurement Office and others. We incorporate a broad understanding of working conditions in supply chains into this area of work, including fair prices paid to producers and human rights in manufacturing. We work to develop a more detailed understanding of specific aspects where issues are complex, such as conflict minerals or modern slavery, in order to know how to engage with our suppliers. We welcome partnerships with researchers to inform our work on supply chains, including with postgraduates. In 2015, two MSc students carried out field work in Malawi to find out more about the University’s fair trade lentils value chain and livelihoods impacts, and this year we hope to collaborate on several dissertation projects linked to University supply chains.

Despite fair trade’s complexities, we still welcome students and staff to get involved in whatever ways they can – hosting and attending events (check this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight events), raising awareness online (take a look at our six word fair trade story Twitter competition), getting involved in fair trade in the city and at political level (see Scottish Fair Trade Forum and Fair Trade Cross-Party Group), or carrying out research. The overall goal of decent livelihoods for people across the world must not be forgotten.

For more information on fairness in trade, contact Liz at

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