Australian universities embrace fair trade

AUSTRALIAN universities are embracing fair trade – a social justice movement aimed at improving the lives of people in the developing world. Victoria Brown finds out more.

In Australia, higher education institutions are redefining what it means to be “good” universities. Never mind prestige or high rankings – having a campus with a conscience is what universities seem to be aspiring to. And having Fair Trade University status is helping them get there.

For those who do not know what is, fair trade is about “better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world”. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices, the movement aims to address the injustices of conventional trade, which it says can discriminate against poor and weak producers.

 RMIT University and Macquarie University were the first Australian higher education institutions to receive Fair Trade status in 2009. La Trobe University, Monash University and University of Adelaide have since acquired Fair Trade certificiation as well.

To be certified as a Fair Tarde University, universities have to fulfil a set of minimum guidelines that adhere to Fair Trade Australia’s standards. One of these guidelines is that universities have to get their student unions and university councils to pass a resolution in support of fair trade.They also have to establish a Fair Trade Steering Group, promote fair trade within the university and have fair-trade-certified products readily available at reasonable prices in as many on-campus retail outlets as possible.

Monash University is one educational institution that's embraced fair trade. Photo: Donald Tong

Paul Barton, the Director of Environmental Sustainability at Monash University, says the fair trade university movement has been trending overseas for a long time and is especially popular in the United Kingdom.

Monash University was certified as Australia’s third Fair Trade University last year, a commitment that was strongly supported by the University Senior Management and the Student Unions.

“Students have raised this (fair trade issue) with us for a number of years, and certainly our staff has seen it as an important part of our initiatives,” says Mr Barton.

Susanna Bevilacqua from Moral Fair Ground, an organiaation that hosts events and raises awareness on fair trade to the public, says fair trade is important because it provides a sustainable income stream for overseas communities in third world countries.

“It’s not just about the money and how much they get paid but it’s about social justice, providing schooling and giving the people in people in third world countries access to hospitals, clean water and so on,” says Ms Bevilacqua.

Today, more than six million people – farmers, producers, workers and their families – from around 63 countries are said to benefit from the Fairtrade system. Not only do these communities receive a fair price for their produce, but they also receive an additional sum of money (the Fairtrade Premium) for investment in social, economic and environmental development in their community, such as educational and medical facilities.

But fair trade works both ways.

Craig Chester, Operations Manager at Fairtrade Australia, says there is also a set of standards that has to be adhered to for the producers who are growing products.

“Concepts of sustainability are built into the standards. For instance, the banned or hazardous chemicals in fertilizers, and certain things are banned and cannot be used,” says Mr Chester.

“Even though we don’t want additional costs or restrictions to the way they farm, we feel it’s important because end companies and end users want to make sure they’re not buying something that is grown in ways that are not in tune with ethical standards or sustainable standards.”

Students are embracing fair trade. Photo: Polska Zielona Sieć

Despite the scope of the movement, many are still unaware of what fair trade is.

“44 per cent of Australians do know what fair trade is but there’s still a large percentage of Australians who don’t,” said Mr Chester.

But with universities now embracing fair trade, the movement may finally be achieving the recognition and audience they’ve been looking for in higher education students.

From July 27 to 29 this year, Deakin, La Trobe, Melbourne, Monash and RMIT universities will jointly host the second annual Fairly Educated Conference – a forum for university students to increase their knowledge of fair trade. Visit their site for more details. 

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