The head office of Fairtrade International is in the leafy, genteel city of Bonn, former capital of Germany. So when I got my dream job leading Fairtrade's international work, I moved here swapping London's electric mayhem for the peace of the cycle route along the Rhine. It's given me glimpses into the workings of Europe's economic powerhouse. And it seems, contrary to classic free market ideology, that the economy is functioning so well precisely because the rules of society are still strongly shaping the market.
In Germany you had better buy your milk on Saturday, because on Sunday and public holidays, the shops are actually shut. It's a shock coming from the 24/7 shopping mall that is the UK. That's apart from bread which you can still buy, hot and fresh every morning, from the local bakeries round every German corner. Need a bank? Go no further than Sparkasse, a national bank with branches everywhere, and in each town part-owned by the local authorities, with part of the profits invested locally. What's more, I have a charming local bank manager whom I can contact any time. The football clubs that dominate Europe have to remain 50% owned by the fans. And at work, we have as management to work closely with the Works Council who represent the staff interests. There are a multitude such examples of the social fabric which is making capital work for the good of the wider society.
The UK magazine New Statesman (3-9 May) recently explored this theme in its feature, 'What we can learn from Germany'. Maurice Glasman wrote: 'The prevailing paradigms cannot explain why the economy with the highest level of workforce participation in its governance, the greatest degree of regulation of labour-market entry through vocational enforcement and the most severe constraints of capital in its banking system should ebb the most competitive in Europe as well as its most efficient'. It would seem that what sociologist Wolfgang Streeck calls 'constructive restraints' make the economy more dynamic and effective by forcing a balance of interests.
This is precisely the political economy that Fairtrade is seeking to foster in global trade and I am proud to be nominated for a First Women Award, in association with Lloyds Banking Group, which I see, too, to be recognition for the breakthroughs of Fairtrade. We have standards that set the rules, seeking to balance the interests of traders and producers, plantation owners and workers, consumers and producers. We set minimum prices which draw a line in the pricing sand and insist that traders pay a Fairtrade premium, an extra sum which producer groups decide democratically how to invest - in their communities or in building their businesses. Fairtrade standards focus on the democratic organisation of smallholders and on core labour rights for plantation workers, as well as having environmental regulations. Our rules are tough and it undoubtedly costs both traders and producers to comply. And yet despite these rules - or rather because of them? - Fairtrade is flourishing. Last year Fairtrade grew by 19% in the UK and a startling 33% in Germany, with over 1.2 million farmers and workers in 66 countries now participating.
Fairtrade is still far too small at less than 5% in some of the commodities in which we work, and our impact is constrained accordingly. But the model has been shown to work. That is why this week for World Fairtrade Day, Saturday 11 May, right across the whole world thousands of citizens are celebrating. In over 1,000 Fairtrade towns, cities and villages, the grassroots social movement are out and about dressed in banana suits, giving out leaflets or luring the public with free samples of lush Fairtrade chocolate, while producers will be highlighting the value of their craft and the care of their farms. The day highlights the connections between consumers and producers, the relationship that is at the core of Fairtrade. For once shoppers are reminded that a woman grew this coffee or this cocoa, they also want the reassurance that those farmers are treated fairly. And once companies start buying more directly from producers, they come to understand better, and help to find solutions to, their problems.
Maurice Glasman ended his piece referring to the crucial role of personal relationships in changing a political economy, writing: 'The founder of German social democracy Eduard Bernstein was right: the movement is everything'. This World Fairtrade Day we will be celebrating the movement among farmers, workers and campaigners that is the beating heart of Fairtrade and that is helping all the time find the right balance between different stakeholders, and is driving Fairtrade forward.
Harriet Lamb is shortlisted for the 2013 First Women Awards.
The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday 12 June and is hosted by Real Business in association with Lloyds Banking Group.Suggest a correction