On Harriet Lamb and Fairtrade

by Raisa Ostapenko on 3 February 2015

On the evening of January 29th, students, members of faculty and guests all gathered in the Strathaird House – a renovated Victorian villa at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge – to mark the start of the Women of Achievement lecture series organised in celebration of the College’s 50th anniversary.

The College’s President Janet Todd stood before the audience in traditional scholarly robes and a lovely red scarf. She commended the College and its tremendous feats in increasing the opportunities available for women to work and study at one of the world’s greatest universities. President Todd then introduced our first speaker: fair trade campaigner and CEO of Fairtrade International – Ms. Harriet Lamb.Harriet Lamb

On the frontlines of “putting justice into trade” for 25 years now, Fairtrade reaches 1.4 million farmers in 74 different countries, 80% of whom are smallholders. From olive oil farmers in Palestine to coffee farmers in Congo to goldminers in Tanzania, millions of disadvantaged producers and workers worldwide have benefitted from the efforts of Fairtrade International – an advocate for sustainable development, improved production conditions internationally, and the empowerment of local communities.

Ms. Lamb, who took a first in political science at Cambridge, played a tremendous role in Fairtrade’s expansion, as it was her efforts that enabled it to become a mainstream movement, one whose certification mark, appearing on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream containers, Kit Kat bars, tea, muesli, and chutney, amongst an entire range of products, is now recognised by 8 out of 10 people in the UK.

It was Ms. Lamb, said President Todd, who “awakened the [fair trade] consciousness in the populace as a whole” and sparked the grassroots movement that was critical to putting fair trade products on shelves and, subsequently, bringing farmers a better future on their land. By demonstrating that consumers would voluntarily pay more for fair trade products, the grassroots movement has sent the powerful message that a singular change in the lifestyle of one individual can make a difference somewhere along the supply chain. There are now thousands of “fair trade” towns and cities across the world, including London and Cambridge.

Funny, engaging, and charismatic, Ms. Lamb appeared “on stage” dressed in a banana suit. She spoke convincingly and evoked a sense of both compassion and proaction in her captivated audience, before whom she even displayed one of her favourite pair of fair trade cotton knickers in a moment of candidness.

The campaigner became an advocate for sustainable development after a trip to Costa Rica earlier in her career. Upon arriving in Costa Rica, Ms. Lamb saw mile after mile of banana plantations, but strangely no wildlife. She learned shortly thereafter that the locals were using chemicals in their farming that had longed been banned in other countries, including the US. An entire generation of people had become sterile. They were called the “burnt ones”. As evidenced by the lack of fauna, wildlife had been affected too. But not everyone was “so lucky”, observed Ms. Lamb, as some families had the misfortunate of having extremely ill children, who endured much suffering over their short lives and who could not be helped.

Ms. Lamb shared the heartbreaking story of a husband and wife she had met in Costa Rica. Their child, a little boy, had been born with no eyes and no nose. His skin was tinted a bluish-green and his head was several times larger than it would have been had he not been exposed to these dangerous chemicals during foetal development. The child experienced excruciating pain and spent a great deal of time crying. The most devastating aspect of this story is that the boy could not be embraced by his mother, because contact only worsened the pain.

“There is nothing I can do to help him,” his mother told Ms. Lamb. “Nothing except for hold his hand and cry with him.”

It was at this pivotal moment that Ms. Lamb decided to dedicate her life to ensuring that small-scale farmers and other producers across the world had safe and fair working conditions. She was not alone in her determination. It seemed that a do-gooder zeitgeist had settled upon the economically-more-prosperous citizens of the world. It was time to be putting farmers first and not last.

Fair trade gives a voice to ordinary people who are largely “powerless” in the world’s ever-expanding hourglass economy. It is really the children, said Mr. Lamb, for whom these efforts are made. In some remote villages/rural areas in which Fairtrade has been involved, there had been instances where children had to walk 10 miles to get to school. One group of farmers invested its fair trade cotton premium in building a proper school for its children. Another tangible result of fair trade has been the empowerment of women, as some farmers use their premiums to fund secondary and university studies for women.

Despite the organisation’s success, said Ms. Lamb, Fairtrade still has a long way to go. Climate change has been compromising and even reversing a great deal of its accomplishes. Additionally, consumers are increasingly expecting cheaper food. In the UK alone, said Ms. Lamb, the cost of bananas has halved in 10 years, while the cost of production has essentially doubled. Such luxury has come at the expense of farmers.

“We need global fair trade legislation,” said the campaigner. Making any changes to the legislature in which farmers operate, however, has proven challenging, she said, because governments deem their commitment to “free trade” more important. But Fairtrade International will not give up in the pursuit of its goals.

In the spirit the 50th anniversary of Lucy Cavendish College, Ms. Lamb ended her presentation with a quotation. “The man who say its cannot be done,” she said jokingly, “should get out of the way of the woman who will do it.”

Raisa Ostapenko (2014)
M Phil (Modern European History)

Photo credits: Anastasia Kozlovtseva

Filmography: Ryd Cook