Should we buy fairtrade or farmer’s market?

What are we to do? On the one hand, we’re encouraged to help poor producers overseas by buying fairtrade, but then we’re exhorted to reduce food miles by buying local and seasonal produce. Lisa Phillips seeks some guidance for the ethical shopper

On a scale of one to ten, how guilty do the words “ethical shopping” make you feel? Are you down among the exalted one’s and two’s (the non-packaged-no-food-miles-organic-in-season-I-grow-my-own-veg-and-eat-mainly-beans-and-pulses type), or do you shuffle in at an embarrassing nine or ten (I-eat-strawberries-in-November-buy-value-eggs-and-regular-tea-and-didn’t-know-there-was-such-a-thing-as-a-free-range-sausage)? I’d probably rate myself at around six on my Aware Days, and at eight when I’m not really thinking about it, which to be honest, is most of the time.

And therein lies much of the problem. Burdened with over-busy schedules and ever-emptying purses, many of us don’t feel we have the time or money to invest in ethical shopping, which we perceive to be work-intensive and expensive.

Do we buy fairtrade in a bid to tackle poverty and injustice across the globe? Or should we be investing in our local farmers and the flailing British food economy? Hessian bags or boxes? Organic, free-range, or rainforest-friendly? The choices can seem overwhelming and endless, leaving us feeling guilty and unequal to the task. It’s far easier, we conclude, to simply bury our heads in the sand and shop the way we’ve always shopped.

But there’s hope for all those, who, like me, are approaching double numbers on the guilt scale. You don’t have to be a zealot to shop ethically. It is possible to make a difference one small step at a time. Here’s why it’s worth it . . .

 Half the vegetables and 95% of the fruit in the UK comes from abroad. Most often it arrives by plane, which gives off more CO2 than any other form of transport. Agriculture and food account for nearly 30% of goods trucked across the UK, and according to a Government report in 2005, the resulting road congestion, accidents and pollution costs the country £9 billion each year.

The Bible tells us that God has given us guardianship over the earth. This stuff is relevant to us as Christians. Local farmers are harder hit than ever before as they face cut-price supermarket competition, but their hardship hardly compares to that suffered by farmers who produce our food in the world’s poorest countries. Two billion people – a third of all humanity – work hard, but struggle to survive on $2 a day or less. If the earth is the Christian’s responsibility, how much more are its most vulnerable people?

“If we’re finding times tough, you can imagine how much tougher it is for people who already have so little,” says Harriet Lamb, executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation. “I was in Malawi, and I met a woman picking tea for a major British company. She told me that she has to choose between sending her children to school, which is the thing she wants most in life, and preparing a main meal for herself. I just think that’s a scandal, and I’m sure that everyone up and down this country would join with me in thinking that in 2009, nobody growing a product for us should have to choose between sending their kids to school and having a main meal at night.”

The Fairtrade initiative now supports some 7.5 million workers and their families across the world, ensuring that they receive a fair wage for their work. And it’s making a real difference. Globally, consumers spent £1.6 billion on fairtrade products in 2007 – a massive 47% increase on the year before. But let’s take it back to the level of you and me.

“What is so exciting about fair-trade is that every single woman in this country can play her part,” says Harriet. “It’s as simple as putting products in your shopping basket and enjoying them when you get home. For people on the other side of the world, it’s literally enabling them to send their kids to school, to have clean drinking water, to put a square meal on the table.”

But should we be supporting fairtrade at the expense of our own local communities? Harriet believes it’s not a case of one or the other. “I think all the different ways that we can play our part in creating a more sustainable future are absolutely interlinked. There are, for example, no banana or tea or coffee growers in Norfolk. So there’s no clash at all. You can buy your butter, your cheese, and your meat locally, and buy your bananas, your tea, and your coffee from fairtrade farmers. It’s absolutely two sides of the same coin.”

We can all make a start by shedding the guilt and facing the issues surrounding the produce we buy head-on. I’m about to pull up my Tesco shopping list and make a few tweaks here and there. I’ve heard their organic tofu’s a steal.

First steps for the first-time ethical shopper

* Start shopping fairtrade – one small step at a time. During your next shop, exchange your usual brand of tea or coffee for a fairtrade brand. There are plenty of choices available. Next time try the bananas, then sugar, then honey . . .

* Give organic food a go. If the thought of racking up an almighty shopping bill by changing everything in your trolley to organic is putting you off, simply change one or two food items to organic each week. Do your children eat lots of apples? Buy organic apples. Potatoes a regular on your shopping list? Try organic potatoes. Even one or two regular, organic purchases will make a difference.

* Take steps to reduce the amount of food you waste. Cook smaller portions, and use what’s in your fridge before buying any more. Plan your weekly menu, and stick to it.

* Each week, try one new recipe using mainly in-season foods. Look at for some inspiration.

Bigger steps for the established ethical shopper

* Make sure you keep up to date with the types of products available to buy fairtrade. The selection is growing all the time. Fairtrade olive oil and baked beans, for example, should be on shelf soon. Check out the Fairtrade Foundation’s website ( or write to them at: Third Floor, Ibex House, 42-47 Minories, London EC3N 1DY for more information. If you shop online, type “fairtrade” into the search box, and set yourself the challenge of buying fair-trade wherever possible.

* Order a regular fruit and veg box from companies that support organic, locally produced, seasonal food. Companies like Abel & Cole offer products ranging from fruit and veg, to locally produced dairy, meat, bread and wine and deliver it to your door. Check out the Abel & Cole website (, tel: 08452 626364) for more information, or visit and type “fruit and veg boxes” into the search box for a full list of fresh produce delivery schemes in the UK.

Giant steps for the gung-ho ethical shopper

* Initiate a fairtrade campaign in your area, and turn it into a recognised Fairtrade Town. This is official recognition of an area that has committed to supporting fairtrade and using products with the fairtrade mark, and extends to churches, schools, businesses, and individuals. Attend a Fairtrade Campaign Day, or contact the Fairtrade Foundation (, tel: 020 7405 5942) to find out how you can make this happen in your area.

* Get involved with a Community  Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme. This is a partnership between farmers and consumers where the responsibilities and rewards of farming are shared. Not only do current CSA farms deliver fruit and veg boxes, they also allow people to help with the running of an organic farm, sponsor an apple tree and harvest its fruit, rent a plot of farmland and have vegetables grown on their behalf, or rent-a-vine from one of the UK’s few vineyards. Visit, or phone 0117 314 5000 for more information.