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FoodLorraine Brehme

Lorraine Brehme

Fairtrade, Organic, Dolphin Friendly, Rain Forest Alliance – these have all become familiar labels on our food, but back in the early Eighties, they were rare enough to be almost non-existent. It is thanks to the vision of a few key people that the Fairtrade mark is now on over 3,000 everyday products. One of those key people is Lorraine Brehme with her company Clipper Tea.

The story of the founding of Clipper Tea has become legendry in the business world. Beginning with just £50, two tea chests and a beat up Morris van, Lorraine and Mike Brehme created a hugely successful global brand with an ethical conscience. The business was sold a few years ago, for considerably more than £50 and at the very heart of its success was Lorraine’s commitment to Fairtrade and decent working conditions for tea producers.

“When we first started” she says, “Fairtrade was very much in its infancy”. Clipper Tea had always had high quality, single estate tea at its core, but Lorraine wanted to extend that same commitment to ethical working practices. She had very little idea about how to do this and didn’t know who to ask. Whilst out shopping one day she wandered into the Body Shop and picked up a book about how to shop with a conscience. She didn’t buy it, but instead copied the telephone number of the Fairtrade Foundation, and resolved to approach them for advice.

The original Fairtrade Foundation was stated by just three people, by the mid nineties CAFOD, Christian Aid and Oxfam had also became involved. “We were one of the first non-charitable organisations to approach the Fairtrade Foundation”, she says. They were initially treated with an element of suspicion, as corporate, profit making companies and principled working practices were not known to go together in those days. “There were definitely two camps”, she explains, “but I was passionate about the possibility of running a business along morally decent lines and still being able to make a profit.”. It is hard to imagine now how radical this idea was. There were charities on the one hand and there were businesses on the other and never the twain would meet. Lorraine’s commitment to providing a product that was made without exploitation drove her to challenge this way of thinking and push forward the idea of a principled profit making business.

The large tea estates were known to have very poor working conditions, particularly for women and children. Low crop prices and lack of investment compounded the problems within the tea industry. Tea workers were suffering many kinds of abuse; leading one worker to comment that the estate manager’s pets had better living conditions. Total reliance on the estates, meant that workers had very few rights and were treated like glorified slaves.

“Oxfam had produced a Fairtrade tea and coffee in the 1970s”, she says “but it was almost undrinkable and led to a lot of people associating Fairtrade with lack of quality”. It was one of the major stumbling blocks when Lorraine wanted to bring Fairtrade products to a wider market. Tea is a fragile and sophisticated product. There is the possibility of damage throughout the entire process of growing, picking, drying etc. A high quality product and high quality working conditions on the tea estates appeared to be very hard to find.

“The glowing exception was the Burnside Estate in the Nilgiri mountains in Southern India” says Lorraine. The Burnside Estate had over fifty years experience and was already committed to high social standards and environmental protection. The Burnside estate was producing very high quality tea and shared the Brehme’s ethos of ethical production. The Brehmes immediately saw a model of tea production practise that could work for other estates and Fairtrade was a way of regulating and ensuring those high standards, as well as encouraging other estates to improve their working practices and get a fair price for their crop.

The Burnside Estate was added to the Fairtrade register in 1994. Clipper Tea, Green & Black’s Maya Gold Chocolate and Cafe Direct were the first three companies in the UK to receive the Fairtrade mark that same year and the task then was to educate the public about what Fairtrade actually meant for workers on the ground. “We decided to produce a magazine, called The Teapot Times”, Lorraine recalls, “It’s aim was to teach the public about the history of tea production, the ethos of Fairtrade and the positive impact buying Fairtrade marked goods had on communities around the world”. Clipper also became official advisors to the Fairtrade Foundation for tea.

Lorraine explains how tea is considered a ‘shopping basket product’ in the UK and as such is expected to be cheap. Elsewhere in the world, tea prices more accurately reflect the labour intensive production process and coffee is the cheaper of the two. Fairtrade requires companies to pay sustainable prices for goods produced. These prices must never fall below the market price, ensuring that producers can rely on a certain income regardless of how the market fluctuates.

However, Fairtrade is not just about paying a fair price. Fairtrade recognises the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers and enables them to improve their position in the market place by paying a fair price for goods, but this in turn means that estates can invest in better social conditions for workers, including schools and hospitals. It also ensures better working practices and workers rights for those on the estates. In the past, women’s wages had been paid to their husbands and they frequently worked from dawn to dusk, old people were thrown off the estates when they could no longer work and schooling for children was almost non-existent.

Fairtrade means that children of tea workers have access to education, which leads to the chance of a better start in life and the possibility of leaving the estates if they wish. It means that sick or disabled workers are taken care of and working hours are restricted. Women have their own wages and children who have the misfortune to become orphans, are looked after by the estate.

After Clipper had been awarded the Fairtrade mark, the company approached major supermarkets to try and get them to stock Fairtrade products. “The supermarket tea shelves were dominated by the big brands”, says Lorraine “there had been no new tea companies in thirty years”. Sainsbury’s were the first to say yes and the other major supermarkets followed over the next few years. Glenda Jackson MP, who in 1994, tabled an Early Day Motion in support of Westminster using Fairtrade refreshments, helped a growing awareness of Fairtrade with the public. The motion attracted support from over 100 MP’s and by 1997 Clipper tea became the brand of choice in the Commons canteen.

Lorraine is very clear that Fairtrade and organic have to go hand in hand. “Fairtrade bans the use of ten of the major ‘baddy’ chemicals”, she says “but organic means that the environment is truly protected, as well as the people”. Lorraine is totally committed to high quality food production that has a minimal impact on the environment. “Often Fairtrade premiums can help producers to train in organic methods in the future”, she says “This can only be a good thing for all concerned.”

Lorraine is clear that all businesses should work this way. “I really hope that the lead Clipper took on Fairtrade and organic goods provided a blue print for future companies”, she says. There is no doubt that ethical trading is a win/win situation for all concerned – the producers, the companies and the consumers.

“I am most proud of the changes in women’s lives that ethical trading has provided”, she says, “Fairtrade has revolutionised women’s lives in the developing world. The child mortality rate on Fairtrade estates has radically reduced and women are only having two or three children instead of the five or six that was usual in the past. Education, not just for children, but for women too, around health and hygiene matters has greatly increased the quality of life for many and raised self esteem.”

This month sees Fairtrade Fortnight (28th February – 13th March) and the seventeenth year of the Fairtrade Foundation. Recent research shows that 70% of adults now recognise the Fairtrade mark and there is no doubt that Lorraine Brehme has also left her mark on the lives of many.

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