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Local vs Fairtrade: Uni Thinking Which One to Push

The University of Bath has launched a reflection on whether to pursue a more demanding Fairtrade accreditation or focus on direct/local trade for its use and sell of products. The Fairtrade Steering Group, which is made up of staff and students, met in early February to discuss the issue of Fairtrade versus Direct trade, with speakers presenting the benefits of both sides.

The Fairtrade Foundation awarded the University its current Fairtrade status in 2009, as well as the Gold Award for Best Fairtrade University in 2018. The award came as a result of a commitment to Fairtrade products and their promotion across campus outlets, notably including all teas and coffees served. The new accreditation, called Fairtrade University and College Award, would entail meeting 11 newly defined criteria, unlike 5 for the current “Fairtrade University” label: this would mean strongly developing product ranges, as well as a higher fee for the university.

We spoke with Kimberley Pickett, the SU’s Activities Officer, who looks after the organisation’s sustainability issues; she also sits on the Fairtrade Steering Group for the university as a whole. When asked about whether a focus on attaining the new Fairtrade label would prevent the university from also focusing on direct trade, Kimberley highlighted the time and effort would have to put into completing the new Fairtrade criteria. It is possible therefore that less attention will be put into developing relationships with local companies and producers to favour the development of Fairtrade product ranges.

According to Kimberley however, the problem seems to be on the absence of a specific sustainability position at the university, rather than on the challenging nature of the accreditation: “there isn’t a single individual who purely looks after the Environment at the University of Bath, and while there are a lot of individuals who have it within their remit, they also have other things to focus on.” There is therefore a lack of coordination between different actors of the university regarding issues of sustainability on campus. “I believe we would be able to do a lot more streamlined events, activities, campaigns and have a bigger impact if there was a department reserved for sustainability” argued Kimberley.

Considering how small businesses and farmers are struggling to remain competitive in the face of supermarkets and imported goods, the question arises: should the university be prioritising producers from the other side of the world over local producers? To this question, the Activities officer said that while she understood the importance and impact of Fairtrade, she would personally prioritise direct trade: “I honestly think that right now we should be connecting more with our local communities, the town and gown relationship needs to improve, and we need to be working together more.”

While it is still early days for this reflection on whether or not to allocate the resources to a more constraining accreditation at the expense of local producers, several conclusions can be drawn: first, there is a need to optimise procedures relating to sustainability, as the current framework is disorganised. Second, once a position has been created exclusively to deal with sustainability issues across campus, a position which would coordinate members of staff, it should not be necessary for the university to have to choose between direct and Fairtrade. While Fairtrade should be first in line where products cannot be locally sourced, it is in the university’s interest to build ties with the community around it and meliorate relations with the city.

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