Talk to Harriet Lamb C.B.E. without mentioning bananas? You might as well write a biography of Richard Nixon that skipped over Watergate or write about the FA Cup without mentioning Wembley.
Their bold shape and colour may match her driving passion for what she does, and their fun image suits a woman who laughs a lot and laughs loudly, but she loves the Fairtrade ones, because they inspire her work by transforming many thousands of lives.
Harriet Lamb is the woman who grew the Fairtrade movement from some £30 million in 2001 to nearly £500 million in 2007, with more than 4,500 retail and catering products carrying the Fairtrade mark.
“I got interested because I was working in bananas,” she explained as I caught a few minutes with her after a speaking session at the Greenbelt Festival. “I was working for the World Development Movement, which is a campaign group, and we were researching the impact of price cuts in our shops on workers in Costa Rican bananas. I was so shocked by what I discovered and everybody was thinking, ’There must be a better way to run trade.’
“Then I heard that they were looking for someone to help work on Fairtrade bananas. So I went first to Germany and worked on how we could bring Fairtrade bananas into reality. Then this job came up to work with the Fairtrade foundation in the UK and to be a part of building a grassroots social movement here, which was my dream job. I’m very lucky!” She chuckled, then added with obvious delight, “It still is my dream job!”
Lamb avoids pushing her own rôle, and is far keener to give credit to the shopper in the street for its success. “It’s down to ordinary people talking about Fairtrade and organising locally in towns and villages, in churches, workplaces and universities.”
Lamb sprinkled names about like an actress on a thanking binge at an awards ceremony as she acknowledged the valuable support of large NGOs like the Catholic Church and Christian Aid in the movement’s early days, adding that “CAFOD, Oxfam, Traidcraft exchange, the Women’s Institute were all absolutely critical, because they talked about it to their members … and retailers, such as the Co-Op or Sainsbury’s, have been responsive to what the public have wanted.”
“The churches have really been at the forefront; they’ve been absolutely critical for taking this forward. I can’t congratulate them enough for the rôle that they have played in taking an issue and putting it into the mainstream.”
Surprisingly, there seems to be no hint yet of the movement slowing down or reaching a peak. Like a contender in a soundbite completion, she enthused that her foundation aims “to reach more producers in more countries more deeply.” On the home front they aim “to take the market shares right forward; to make Fairtrade the norm and raise awareness of it yet further. So we’ve set ourselves ambitious targets. I’d say we’re broadly on track.
“The amazing thing is that we are doing as well as we are, despite the recession. Many people thought this would blow us right off course, and actually the public have stayed completely loyal to Fairtrade.”
Maybe the public’s enthusiasm is due to the way that the scheme achieves real benefit to poor people without supporters needing a degree in economics to understand how it works.
In exchange for agreeing to dispose of waste safely, and ban both child labour and a group of nasty pesticides, producers are guaranteed a minimum price for their goods with a five per cent premium on top. This little extra enables them to invest in machinery for business or education for their societies, and makes a noticeable difference in their standard of living.
Nut growers can help stave of deforestation, and coffee growers can reduce by ten times the water wasted in washing beans.
Getting a fair price also gives a sense of achievement to producers, who otherwise might suffer increased poverty at the hands of unscrupulous large companies, should they maintain their own margin and pass the impact of lower prices onto farmers.
Fairtrade is a system that is hard to fault, although this has not stopped some detractors from trying, claiming that when some farmers are involved in the Fairtrade scheme, nearby local producers suffer.
“I’ve never understood the theoretical argument that if some people get paid more others get paid less. I’ve never understood it!” exclaims Lamb, ablaze with indignation. “The opposite is true. There’s evidence to show that when some farmers are getting paid a Fairtrade price, that helps raise prices for other farmers in the area, including those who are not yet Fairtrade certified.
“That works both with people who are selling to traders locally, and it also works in the auction house. If some people are bidding for a Fairtrade price, that again helps to pull it up for all the farmers. That’s part of the wider ripple effect that Fairtrade can have.”
Since her formative years in India – where she returned after her time reading political science at Cambridge University, to help Untouchables to grow grapes – Harriet Lamb has been driven to make life better for others.
She was particularly motivated by a Costa Rican family she met in 1993. A woman called Maria had a husband, whose job was to inject the DBCP pesticide into the ground to protect the banana plant’s roots from parasites. DBCP had already been banned in America because it allegedly made Californian workers sterile.
Because he absorbed the poison all day from his work, when his family’s first child was born, the boy came out sickly green, with a head much bigger than his body, eyes and nose joined together and with bits of his brain missing. What made the situation so tragic was that thousands of other Costa Rican children were also deformed.
By contrast, Lamb now considers meeting people through her work to be “divine.”
She is particularly inspired by the farmers in the Windward Isles, who grow – yes, bananas. “I’ve been with supermarket bosses who say that these are the most organised farmers they’ve ever met, because they have worked in their community and they’re all the time thinking about what is happening internationally; so they have literally turned around the whole of the Windward Isles economy.
“For decades people have been talking about ‘We must do something, the banana economy is in decline,’ but nobody was finding any solution. It’s the farmers themselves who have done it, who have turned around their whole economies and their whole countries; and to go with those farmers and see their pride, when they show you how they’ve put a computer into this school, they’ve put a sterilising unit into this hospital, it’s so inspiring!
“As one farmer said, ‘I used to be just someone who just loaded bananas into the back of a lorry. In this new system, I’m an international businessman.’ That’s the kind of change that can happen!”
At the time of this interview, Harriet Lamb was Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation. She has also been Outstanding Businesswoman of 2008 in the National Business Awards, and author of “Fighting the Banana Wars and Other Fairtrade Battles.” The original interview appeared in The Church of England Newspaper.