Inside story of Garstang's journey to becoming world's first Fairtrade town

It  is Fairtrade Fortnight and for one Lancashire town that’s a special cause for celebration. Bruce Crowther tells Fiona Finch how Garstang became the world’s first Fairtrade town 20 years ago, despite initial setbacks

Thursday, 27th February 2020, 11:45 am
Updated Thursday, 27th February 2020, 12:03 pm
Bruce Crowther shows how Fairtrade has put Garstang on the international map.

From small acorns big oak trees grow.

And from passion and single mindedness come unexpected results.

More than 20 years ago Bruce Crowther, his wife Jane and their babysitter Barbara showed just such determination and vision when they first began to support fairer trade.

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Bruce Crowther presents Patricia Adwubi, cocoa farmer from New Koforidua, with FIG Tree chocolate made using her farm's cocoa beans in August 2019.

Two decades later Garstang is celebrating its 20th anniversary of becoming the world’s first Fairtrade town. It is located on a special Fairtrade walk and for four years the town had the distinction of having its own Fairtrade cafe and exhibition/visitor centre The FIG Tree.

Today there are thousands of Fairtrade towns across the globe. But it was certainly not plain sailing for those early advocates.

Bruce, a former vet from Garstang, recalls how the town’s support for Fairtrade grew from the trio’s work campaigning on behalf of Oxfam.

He said: “I think the important thing is what it started globally. It’s fantastic what happened. There are now over 2,000 Fairtrade towns in 33 countries. Seoul in South Korea is the largest Fairtrade city in the world, (there’s) San Francisco, nearly all the European capitals ... what’s amazing is they are on every continent as well. It was meant to be a move towards ending global poverty ... it’s just as important now as it was all those years ago.”

Pictured (from left) Philip Riley, Ruth Bruce, Peter Ryder and Town Crier Hilary McGrath celebrating the latest renewal of Garstang's Fairtrade Town status.

Championing Fairtrade he has witnessed an enduring conflict of interests between people wanting cheap food and the need to recompense producers fairly: “People want to get more for their money but they are not bothered about the impact that has on other people or the planet.”

Change is however afoot. He said: “At the moment there’s a big emphasis on climate change. It’s sort of evolved in that people involved in Fairtrade will be involved in climate change, working to see a better world for all of us.

Now people seek less plastic and bother about carbon emissions.”

It was the global fundraiser Live Aid which got Bruce involved in Oxfam’s work. He said: “In 1992 in the beginning there was me, my wife and our babysitter. The three of us met in a room and started the Oxfam group. We campaigned on lots of issues but very quickly we became involved with Fairtrade particularly promoting the Fairtrade marque. The marque came out two years later in 1994.”

Bruce Crowther pictured outside the (now closed) Fig Tree

At that time there was no intention of making the Wyre market town of Garstang a Fairtrade town. Bruce said: “These things evolve.”

During the 1990s the group spent 95 per cent of its time campaigning on fairer trade issues but was also involved in other issues.

Fairtrade was not always a popular and appreciated cause. Bruce said: “In the beginning it was awful.”

He has been invited all over the world to share the story of Garstang’s development as a Fairtrade town and acknowledges: “One thing that inspires people is that in the beginning we were failing - that’s a really important message. Everybody really likes to raise things up - it was fantastic, the people of Garstang got together and everybody supported it.

"It wasn’t like that. We have to be truthful. In the beginning we were trying to get people to use Fairtrade (products). We used different methods - one was to give a catering pack of Fairtrade coffee to all churches in Garstang.

“But out of the six places of worship only three carried on using Fairtrade. For us it was disappointing. I remember thinking if you can’t even get a church using Fairtrade coffee what chance do we have with everyone else? We thought what do we have to do to get that message across?”

In 2000 Oxfam was campaigning to reduce poverty and inequality in Ghana, a campaign Bruce was supporting. Aware that Ghana is a cococa producer and that the first Fairtrade bananas had arrived in Britain that year he decided it was time to get people to taste chocolate banana pancakes to mark Fairtrade Fortnight.

The idea grew and with it an invitation list of influential local people and organisations.

Local restaurant The Jacobite agreed to host the tasting event. But its proprietor pointed out that a pancake was insufficient. The event became a full meal featuring meat and other produce donated by local farmers and Fairtrade products. Bruce recalls that with just £10.00 in the group’s kitty support was vital “For Garstang as a rural area it didn’t seem right to just promote Fairtrade , we wanted to promote local farmers too. It was a good networking event - we put on a three course meal for 70 people.

“We said we don’t want your money. All we want you to do is to pledge to use Fairtrade and local produce whenever you can. We got everybody signed up - all the schools, all the churches, everybody.

“Two days before I remember waking up and thinking if it’s successful and we get everyone to sign a pledge we will have created a Fairtrade community, a whole town supporting Fairtrade.”

At the meal he mentioned the notion to the mayor who later invited Bruce to speak at the town’s Annual meeting: “We had about 30 people there.They were going to break for coffee. It was Fairtrade coffee. Somebody said this is all well and good having cups of coffee what are we going to do about it? I had suggested being a Fairtrade town. The mayor said this will be discussed at the next council meeting. The clerk intervened and said it could be decided at this (annual) meeting. It was a public meeting and members of the public had the right to make decisions.”

He remembers how suddenly everyone was paying attention: “ A wonderful lady called Rachel Rogers stood up and said ‘I propose we make Garstang a Fairtrade town’ and that’s how it happened.”

After a further 18 month campaign Bruce got the Fairtrade Foundation to adopt the idea of Fairtrade towns ... and the rest is history.

•Bruce opened The Fig Tree Fairtrade Cafe e in Garstang’s former community centre in 2011. Despite a lengthy campaign it closed in 2014 prior to redevelopment of the site .Bruce still runs Fig Tree Fairtrade bean to bar chocolate making workshops .The FIG Tree’ relocated to St John;s church in Lancaster but the venue flooded. The acclaimed exhibition on slavery and Fairtrade needs a new home. Contact Bruce at [email protected]

•This year's Fairtrade Fortnight 2000 continues until March 8.The Fairtrade Foundation describes Fairtrade says: "Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world."

The Foundation seeks better recompense and working conditions for farmers and workers in the developing world. It adds: "By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives".