Scotland's agricultural heritage provides a sympathetic base for Fairtrade farming initiatives

Coffee beans

With a list of 70 different Fairtrade products, Edinburgh’s Equal Exchange is at the forefront of the movement that has changed our attitudes to food shopping. Claire Ritchie meets the folk behind it

‘Scottish people have always liked to support the underdog,’ says Barry Murdoch of Equal Exchange, a Fairtrade organisation based in Edinburgh. ‘That’s why Scotland and Fairtrade seem to complement each other so well.'

Equal Exchange was founded in Edinburgh in 1979, when three voluntary workers returned to Scotland from aid projects in Africa. Back then the concept of trade being fair was barely on the global agenda, but since then fair trade has become a high profile issue and Equal Exchange has become Europe’s biggest Fairtrade supplier. In the early days the company set up Café Direct – the biggest Fairtrade coffee brand in the UK today – and the first Café Direct sales were made in Edinburgh in 1981. Since 2005, the company has doubled in size and has over 70 Fairtrade and organic certified products – more than any in the UK.

The Fairtrade supply chain works in developing parts of the world by replacing the middleman and the exporter with a farmers’ co-operative. The farmers are able to sell their goods directly to an importer – for example in Europe – which then sells on to the retailer. By shortening the supply chain, the farmers and their communites keep more of the profit.

So what is the secret behind all this success? Equal Exchange works with small co-operatives and producers in developing countries, particularly in Africa and South America. Equal Exchange pre-finances all of its producers by guaranteeing crops and prices, and it also helps with the organic certification process. As well as receiving a fair price for their crops, the farmers receive an additional ‘premium’ payment. This goes straight back to the farming organisation, which democratically decides how it should be spent – clean water supplies, education for the farmers’ children, health care and so on.

The health benefits, such as the reduced risk of lung disease when crops are grown without the use of pesticides and fertilisers, means the farmers can put back the money into the community, building the business and building schools. Wherever possible, the products are packaged at source, too, which results in more of the profit staying within the community. Working with small producers means there is less pressure to produce huge quantities but more emphasis is given to ensuring they can grow high-quality produce that will attract a premium price.

Coffee, tea and cocoa are the products most closely associated with the Fairtrade concept, but they don’t necessarily hold the key to future of companies such as Equal Exchange. ‘These days the hot beverage market has become stagnant and heavily controlled by the supermarkets, so diversification into new products will be the key,' says Murdoch. Some beauty products are becoming Fairtrade, using for example cashew butter and coffee grounds in place of more traditional chemical products, and the first Fairtrade Palestinian olive oil has just been launched. Such diversification is not a new thing for Equal Exchange, a company that has been behind many Fairtrade firsts. It is responsible for the world’s only Fairtrade wild rooibos tea, for example, and the first Fairtrade nuts.

If this sounds a million miles from the traditional notion of Scotland’s larder, think again. Local produce and Fairtrade share an empathy with the source and quality of the food, along with a heightened awareness of the consequences of consumer purchases. More than half of Scottish towns are now labelled Fairtrade Towns, with whole islands, such as Arran, also on the case. ‘Scotland is particularly disposed to the concept of Fairtrade because the people here are socially minded and, historically, are from a farming background,' says Murdoch.

Perhaps this underdog will win the day after all.