Since 2005, the University of Leeds has been a fair-trade university. This means that the university is already committed to selling a range of fair-trade products in all of its food and drink outlets on campus. In keeping with it’s Corporate Social Responsibility review, Leeds University Union promised to prioritise fair-trade products and principles and provide a range of ethically sourced products.
A new motion to go before the student body this week proposes to expand on this. The motion proposes that LUU sells ‘as the standard option in LUU’s bars and clubs fair-trade juices, fair-trade wines and ONE bottled water’, makes ‘a commitment that Essentials and Extras should sell as many products from the Co-operative fair trade range as possible’, that LUU sells ‘Ubuntu fair-trade cola as an alternative drinks choice during gigs and events in the Refectory’ and lastly, that LUU ‘sells and promotes ONE products in Essentials and Extras, including but not limited to ONE vitamin water and ONE condoms’.
This is all well and good, yet even with these admirable proposals, would we really be able to honestly describe ourselves as a ‘fair-trade university’? Surely we are only really a fair-trade union once the students, not only support, but understand fair-trade. And I do not believe they do.
The Union’s stated belief that “fair trade makes a direct and important difference in people’s lives around the world”, is probably shared by all Leeds’ students. But in many cases, this belief is only held on a superficial and rather vague level, and does not actually motivate people to go out of their way to buy fair-trade products.
For many students, the simple issue of having to pay more is the main factor in deciding whether fair-trade bananas make it into their shopping basket or not. The image of a poverty-stricken banana-grower or coffee producer living and working in appalling conditions is not at the fore-front of many students’ minds when sipping on a cup of coffee or whacking some bananas into your shopping basket. But surely the one thing that would foster a willingness to spend extra on ethical products would be better education on the subject. Fair-trade is all too easily something we support in principle, but rarely commit to – and barely understand.
Therefore the University can only really call itself a fair-trade university once it resolves to educate students about why they should be buying fair-trade.
I have a friend who will only buy free-range chicken and eggs, but takes a more ambivalent view to fair-trade. She puts this entirely down to a sudden massive surge of media attention (chiefly instigated by Jamie Oliver) over the issue of free-range. But a lack of publicity about fair-trade has meant that she is less likely to buy fair-trade products.
It would seem that she is not alone. Many students, even those who do buy fair-trade, seem doubtful on what fair-trade really means. I feel it is unlikely that many fair-trade shoppers could confidently say the exact percentage of money that will end up in the farmer’s pocket, and even if the minimum amount received is that which covers the costs of sustainable production, as outlined on the official Fair-Trade Foundation website, or whether, even then, we can define this as ‘fair’ compared to the relative luxury of our own life-styles.
Whilst I whole-heartedly agree that LUU is right in promising to uphold its promise to expand fair-trade and ethical products, and believe it should be a principle that the Union upholds, I feel it is futile without an awareness campaign behind it.
Despite apparently being committed to promoting fair, I for one am dubious about the actual amount of awareness of fair-trade on campus. This needs to be addressed and should, without a doubt, be included within the motion. This is the only way of getting poorer students to pay that little bit more for fair-trade. Even if the motion gets massive support to increase fair-trade, this would be by no means indicative of a student population knowledgeable on the subject or even resolved to buy fair-trade products. I see no point in force-feeding the student population with what the Union defines as ethically sound principles, if they have not taken the time to encourage and educate first.