Most chilly Wednesdays at lunchtime, students at Bishop’s University are invited to grab a steaming cup of hot cocoa in the campus quad outside the library. It’s part mental wellness break, part educational opportunity.
“Students obviously come for the free hot chocolate but we also get to talk about what they’re drinking,” said Ariane Horrall, a sustainable development student intern at Bishop’s who helps out with the giveaway event. Students hear about how small family farm cocoa growers, most in West Africa, typically do not share equitably in the highly profitable global cocoa business and how fairly traded products like the hot chocolate they’re cupping in their hands in Lennoxville, Que., can make a difference on the other side of the world.
It’s efforts like these that helped to earn the university its designation as a Fair Trade Campus by Fairtrade Canada, a national organization that is part of a larger international non-profit network that promotes and sets standards for fairly traded products from small-scale producers in developing nations. The designation was announced in November but the work towards it has been underway since 2021 as part of Bishop’s 2020-2024 sustainable development plan. The plan is the university’s response to the worldwide climate crisis and a call for more sustainable ways of living.
“We take for granted many products that we have in our daily lives, like coffee and chocolate,” said Laurence Williams, Bishop’s sustainable development adviser. Participating in Fairtrade Canada’s campus program “gives us a good opportunity to reflect on what we eat in our daily life and where it’s from and what is the cost of that, not only the economic costs, but social and environmental costs.”
Bishop’s becomes the 43rd Canadian higher education institution, most of them universities, to hold the Fair Trade campus designation. (The University of Alberta’s Augustana campus was 42nd, earning its designation in late August; the University of British Columbia was the first, in 2011.) To earn it, the university assembled a committee of about six people representing students, staff and faculty, including those with expertise related to sustainable development goals. Working with the committee and others at the university, staff coordinated with Sodexo, Bishop’s food service provider, to ensure that it could procure the necessary certified fair trade products to sell at all campus food and beverage outlets under Bishop’s direct control. The change with Sodexo was made “faster than I thought,” said Ms. Williams. “They were really collaborative.” Fair trade products such as chocolate are also being sold at the campus student co-op store, Doolittle’s.
Fairtrade Canada requires at a minimum that designated campuses offer only fair trade coffee, at least three fair trade tea options, and at least one fair trade chocolate option, wherever each of those items would ordinarily be sold. Bishop’s has also added fair trade hot chocolate and is giving a local twist to its fair trade coffee, which is roasted by Sherbrooke-based Faro Roasting Houses (the town of Sherbrooke became a designated Fair Trade Town by Fairtrade Canada in 2011). Fair trade campuses must also commit to organizing events and activities that increase the visibility of their fair trade products and educate their community about what fair trade means.
Bishop’s is emblematic of a growing fair trade campus movement in Canada, said Loïc de Fabritus Gautier, senior manager, advocacy and citizen engagement, at Fairtrade Canada. After a stall in designations during the COVID-19 pandemic when campus activity, including food services, was shut down or restricted, the postsecondary sector is getting active again and two more universities and one CEGEP are “in the pipeline” to receive their designations early in 2023, he said.
“Universities are competing to get students and one of the criteria for students’ choice is how the university is aligned with their values,” said Mr. de Fabritus Gautier. In addition to believing in sustainability for its own sake, competition in student recruitment “has made universities increase their sustainability commitments and fair trade is just one of those commitments.”
Fairtrade Canada estimates that a campus of roughly 3,000 people – in line with Bishop’s – can generate more than $16,000 in additional money annually from coffee and tea sales for producers by way of premiums that are paid through the fair trade program on top of the revenue from product sales. Multiplied across Canada’s 43-and-counting designated campuses – which accounts for more than 750,000 students, plus faculty and staff – and those funds represent real impact through their investment into improved production systems and items that boost a community’s standard of living, such as safe and efficient drinking water systems, said Mr. de Fabritus Gautier.
Fairtrade International sets the standards for what it means for a product to be fairly traded, including requirements around workers’ rights, gender equality and environmental protection. These standards, as well as minimum prices and policies, are decided in consultation with producers, its website says. However, producers, traders and other supply chain actors are assessed and certified against those standards by independent auditors hired by FLOCERT, an arm’s-length subsidiary of Fairtrade International. Fairtrade Canada then licenses Canadian-sold products to feature the Fairtrade logo on their packaging based on those assessments. Anyone seeking certification must pay fees to Fairtrade Canada licensing.
While well-intentioned, consumers should know that most voluntary projects to fairly treat producers in developing nations have limited success, particularly in the absence of government policies that promote anti-poverty, fair labour and environmentally sustainable practices, said Gavin Fridell, co-editor of The Fair Trade Handbook: Building a Better World, Together and Canada Research Chair in international development studies at Saint Mary’s University (also working to gain Fair Trade Campus status). Dr. Fridell points out that it’s also possible for universities to sell fair trade products on the one hand yet continue to financially benefit from companies that make life harder for developing communities on the other. Still, in an email to University Affairs, he said that Fairtrade International’s certification is “a gold standard” and that in the absence of such programs “campuses would likely continue to trundle down what is, in my view, the wrong path, choosing giant transnational companies over smaller, local companies, without concern for how authentic or independently verified their claims are to ‘sustainability’ or ‘fairness’.”
Bishop’s does not plan to rest on its laurels. Already it is setting its sights on what else it can do, perhaps by selling more fair trade items, such as certified bananas, sugar or clothing made with fair trade cotton. Fairtrade Canada also offers silver and gold designations for campuses that go on to meet higher standards.
“It’s a lot of work to implement culture change every day on campus,” said Ms. Williams. “So when we have success like this, it’s always a good opportunity for us and for the community to celebrate the work that we do and to better understand its importance.”