UCU Teach Out III

Fairtrade Towns - Inspired by History

  • This report is a part of the following series: UCU Teach Out.
  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

If it can happen in Garstang, it can happen anywhere.

Bruce Crowther

The UCU Teach Out programme of events is nothing if not eclectic. Amongst the talks about academic neoliberalism and workshops on decolonising the curriculum (which I missed) was this presentation by Bruce Crowther MBE, founder of the Fairtrade Towns movement and current Director of the FIG Tree, which had been moved off-campus at the last minute in solidarity with the strike. In practical terms, it meant I got to fill up on free chocolate samples after watching the UCU shoot themselves in the foot.

Crowther opened on a cheery note—Lancaster was once the fourth-largest slave trade port in the country. The provenance of that would be made apparent later on; for the time being, Crowther was content to dive into the story of the creation of the first Fairtrade Town right at our back door, in Garstang. Crowther detailed the initial struggles that he and his Oxfam colleagues faced in the late ’90s trying to impress upon community leaders the value of Fairtrade. Ultimately, it was a three-course meal—of Fairtrade food, of course—that swung it. The campaigners didn’t pressure the attendees for donations, but only to pledge to buy Fairtrade from hereon out. From the inauspicious beginning, the Fairtrade campaigners of Garstang lit a beacon that would spread like wildfire through the whole country, according to past Parliamentary Under-Secretary George Foulkes.

Crowther then detailed the Five Goals that a prospective Fairtrade Town had to achieve before it would be awarded the title:

  1. Local council passes a resolution supporting Fairtrade…;
  2. A range of […] Fairtrade products are readily available in the area’s retail outlets…;
  3. Local workplaces and community organisations […] support Fairtrade and use Fairtrade products wherever possible;
  4. Media coverage and events raise awareness and understanding of Fairtrade across the community; and
  5. A local Fairtrade steering group is convened…

Whilst other countries have added goals to this list, no country may take away from these original five. Crowther added that these goals can be applied to any organisation—case in point: the University of Lancaster is a Fairtrade University. In the decade and change since Garstang’s becoming the first Fairtrade Town, there are now 2,040 such towns in 32 nations—including, Crowther stressed, nations that one might not expect to have the time to bother with Fairtrade, such as Lebanon. Next month, Seoul will apparently become the world’s largest Fairtrade Town.

Here, Crowther returned to the issue of slavery. We have this thing about mistakes being a bad thing. If you make a mistake and don’t learn from it, that’s a bad thing. He compared reflective nostalgia, whereby the past is considered, warts and all, and learnt from, with restorative nostalgia, whereby one aims to restore a rose-tinted view of the past. To make Britain, or America, great again. Whereas our neck of the woods had previously been crucial in a bad trading system—i.e. chattel slavery—it was now the birthplace of a good trading system—i.e. Fairtrade.

Crowther here talked about the aims of Fairtrade to rid the world of poverty, which Mandela believed to be man-made and which can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. The thread between the slave trade abolitionists, such as Thomas Clarkson, and the Fairtrade campaign now, was summed up with the following abolitionist quote:

It is simply immoral that people should be allowed to suffer in order to provide us with luxuries such as tea, coffee and sugar at a cheap price.

It may well be legal, stressed Crowther, as slavery once was, but it remains immoral. He then took aim at those who attempt to wave away the sins of historic figures as having occurred in different timesyes, he said, you have to put it in the context of the time, but don’t let that make you forget that there were people even then who recognised how wrong it was. Damn those ever-prescient Quakers!

Following on from Garstang, New Koforidua became the first Fairtrade Town in Africa. Crowther illustrated the lasting impact of imperialism with an anecdote about travelling over to the town and asking the cocoa farmers why they never ate their own beans. They apparently replied: the beans don’t belong to us, we farm them for the British. Next up on our whistlestop tour of the development of the Fairtrade Town movement was Media, Pennsylvania, the first such town in the Americas. Crowther noted with pleasure that Garstang, New Kofordiua and Media represented the three points of the triangular slave trade.

The FIG Tree (FIG standing for Fairtrade in Garstang) was set up in Garstang to receive the international visitors who made the routinely pilgrimage to a small town in the north-west of England. Crowther acknowledged the surreality of the situation—he appreciated that Garstang was not a particularly radical town—but argued if one [went] away thinking that there’s nothing special about Garstang, that’s exactly the point.

Unfortunately, Garstang city council declined to renew the FIG Tree’s lease on their building, and so they moved to St Thomas’ Church in Lancaster. Unfortunately, since the Storm Desmond flooding, they have been without premises. They have survived, however, by making and selling bean to bar chocolate—the preserve of around 10 companies in the UK, and only one other in the north-west—and putting on community outreach events.

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