Co-op: Fair pay for supply chain workers ‘could be the next plastics’

As more companies begin to emphasise the importance of human rights across global supply chains, the Co-op's chief commercial officer Michael Fletcher has noted that supply chain worker treatment could have a “David Attenborough moment” and become the next big sustainability issue for consumers.

Speaking at a conference hosted by Fairtrade in London last week, Fletcher argued that the traditional model of trade is no longer “working” for farmers in supply chains, highlighting the fact that the gap between the market price for coffee and what is considered a “fair price” currently stands at around 15%.

Fletcher claimed that consumer confusion around eco-labels was a key contributor to this price gap, with shoppers “left confused” among “too much noise”, as more and more brands move to launch their own certification schemes.

Specifically, Fletcher predicted that the drive to change existing supply chain models to ensure that all workers receive a living wage is likely to be consumer-led, with manufacturers and then policymakers following suit – in a similar fashion to the current corporate phase-out of plastics.

“We believe that consumers don’t know that [fair pay] issues exist, and equally important is that those who do know, find it really difficult to make an informed choice,” Fletcher said during a panel discussion with Gregg’s’ commercial director Malcolm Copland and Fairtrade Africa’s executive director Nyagoy Nyong’O.

“We live in a world which is really fast and when we see various marks on various products, we assume that’s achieving what we want to achieve. We need our own kind of David Attenborough moment. People need to understand that hundreds of thousands of people are actually struggling to make a living while providing us with commodities that we take for granted. They need to say, ‘this is a disgrace – how is it allowed to happen?’”

Last year, Sainsbury’s was criticised by the Fairtrade Foundation for launching its own sustainability standard which effectively negates the need for external ethical certification labels on its products. More recently, chocolate brands owned by Mondelez International have gone on sale without Fairtrade branding, despite the firm’s Cocoa Life initiative being supported by a number of on-ground NGOs, including Fairtrade.

According to Fletcher, brands could be viewed as  “cynical” by placing their own profits ahead of the livelihood of their supply chain workers.

He used the event to call on other companies to adopt a bottom-up rather than top-down policy for supply chain worker’s rights and pay decisions, arguing that doing so would close the gap between the “comfortable” corporate sphere and the “harsh reality” of supply chain conditions.

In 2017, the Co-op became the first UK retailer to sell and use only Fairtrade cocoa in own-brand products. The Co-op has partnered with the Fairtrade Foundation to create a new sourcing model, which has seen more than 200 Co-op products switch to 100% Fairtrade cocoa.

“We have to be honest and recognise that there are a vast number of people in the world today who aren’t worrying about the sustainability of the crop in 15 years’ time – they’re worried about how they are going to feed their families next year,” Fletcher concluded.  “We can’t afford, in my opinion, to let the Fairtrade message get diluted.”

Certification scheme confusion

Fletcher’s speech follows on from the raising of similar concerns by the Changing Markets Foundation, which recently claimed that certain voluntary certification schemes were providing cover for companies that are “destroying the planet”.

The Foundation argued in a recent report that the abundance of certification offers is watering-down sustainability efforts from the business community, with more than 460 eco-labels now in existence across 25 UK markets.

Sarah George

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