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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ted van Hees on Fairfood

Source: Concord Flash 48, January 2008


Most people realise there is reason to worry about the quality of consumer products. Who is not concerned to hear about too much lead in children’s toys from China? Still, reality teaches us that we are remarkably indifferent to how most products we use in our everyday life are produced. Often this occurs in a way which is not responsible towards either people or the environment. We all believe children should be in school instead of working in a factory. All over the world, workers should have the right to fair wages and proper working conditions. However, when these rights lead to higher prices for products, most people do not persevere. It is about time for a change. We need to take responsibility for the products we choose to consume, and towards the people who produce them.

All this was decided seven years ago and recorded in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In the year 2000, world leaders agreed to provide education for every child and to ban diseases like malaria, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis. Health care should be brought to acceptable levels, including in developing countries. Five years later, in 2005, at the G8 Summit in Gleneagles and the UN Millennium + 5 Summit, these promises were repeated, to underline their importance. Despite this revived promise, most rich countries reduced their foreign aid, with the Netherlands as a positive exception. Moreover, the foreign assistance European countries do provide is often more beneficial for their own companies than for the people we, Europeans, claim we are helping. Overall, the MDGs are far from being reached. Without a dramatic improvement, achieving the goals will take another hundred years.

But how can this be done? One strategy that has proved to be effective is the fairness approach of Fairfood. Fairfood encourages people to consume fair products, the production and trading of which lead to less hunger and poverty in developing countries. Fairfood judges companies and supermarkets on their state of "fairness". This results in a list of companies and products which tells how "fair" they actually are, and which consumers can use as the ideal shopping list.

The Fairness approach is a very effective and elegant campaign model: companies which score below the average and are blacklisted will do everything to reach or surpass this average. This will lead to a progressively advancing average, which will encourage more and more companies to adjust the quality of their products to meet the most important criteria. In the same way as the climate campaign led to a breakthrough for energy-efficient light bulbs and other energy-saving practices, the Fairness approach will make both consumers and producing companies aware of the fairness standard.

Where governments fail, it is up to the public to take the lead. When enough people make an effort, in time governments have to listen to public opinion and start working seriously to implement the MDGs. In the Netherlands, for example, the main development NGOs have united under the banner of an "EEN campaign" to ask the government to take its responsibility. EEN means ONE and the campaign is asking each person to sign up against poverty so that all together they speak with one voice. The first step is asking people to give their vote against poverty on its website. In 2007, on World Poverty Day on 17 October, these votes were handed to the Dutch ministers for finance and development cooperation who presented them in Washington on 20-22 October when finance and development cooperation ministers from all over the world attended the annual meetings of IMF and the World Bank. With this second step, EEN has shown governments that the public is taking responsibility where they fail to do so.

The Fairness model can be easily applied to any other area of human consumption: clothing, cosmetics, and even dining in restaurants and travelling. An absolute condition for the success of the fairness strategy is the number of people that participate. The kind of action led by EEN also happens in 122 countries of the world under the banner of the Global Call to Action against Poverty and the symbol of the white band. You too can be one of the people acting against poverty.

Ted van Hees, campaign leader of EEN, An End to Poverty, Dutch MDG Platform, involving over 50 organisations.

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