When will the Co-operative Group back fair trade for all – like Waitrose/John Lewis?

First published on the Fair Deal Food Council’s website

Why shouldn’t all British food producers also get a fair deal covering production plus costs? They did in the Middle Ages. 

On March 7th Professor of Food Policy Tim Lang, Co-operatives UK’s Ed Mayo and others will speak at a meeting subtitled ‘The co-operative journey for fair trade’. Will the subject of a fair return for British food producers be on the agenda? 

Waitrose Managing Director Mark Price wrote

“Waitrose believes that farmers have the right to be paid fairly and we have bucked market trends in times of crisis for the industry. For example, earlier this year, we set a rate for its British lamb above market rates, because we felt the market rate was unsustainable for the industry.”  

In recognition of its fair price for milk producers, Waitrose received an award: 


Left: Waitrose manager, right, dairy farmer 

The independent East of England Co-operative shows the large Co-operative Group the right way forward 

The Co-op Group’s Peter Marks did not answer directly but deputed Mark Craig to write. His answer stressed sourcing of local food, which is good, but failed to address the issue of cost-covering payment. 

However since 2007 the East of England Co-operative has brought its range of local products under a ‘Sourced Locally’ banner, resolving: 

  • to trade fairly and honestly with local producers
  • to generate sustainable revenue for local producers and the society

The co-op has bought potatoes from Robert Strathern, from Fairfields Farm near Colchester, for some years.

He comments: “We are really pleased that our relationship with the East of England Co-op has proved so successful, and this has helped us to take on five new staff.”

If all the co-op’s suppliers are just as satisfied, it offers a Fair Deal model for the whole Co-operative Group. 


The Cumbria Fair Trade Network has taken a welcome lead


The Cumbria Fair Trade Network’s conference in November examined existing good practice both in Cumbria and in developing countries in order to work towards a fairer deal and a sustainable future for farmers both here and there.

Medieval thinking and practice

In the Middle Ages RH Tawney records that the ‘unpardonable sin’ is committed by the middleman, ‘who snatches private gain by the exploitation of public necessities’. Prices were often fixed by public officials, ‘after making an inquiry into the supplies available and framing an estimate of the requirements of different classes’:

“Failing that, the individual must fix prices for himself, guided by a consideration of ‘what he must charge in order to maintain his position, and nourish himself suitably in it, and by a reasonable estimate of his expenditure and labour”.   

Today the power of the supermarkets has removed that natural justice – so food producers await the government’s appointment of an effective adjudicator – supported by Waitrose but opposed by the Co-operative group.

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