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Martin Kunz FRSA, a member of the Fellow-led International Development Network, asks why rubber is not a prime target for the Fairtrade label.

Some 25 years into Fairtrade labelling, almost all ‘colonial products’ are readily available with the Fairtrade label. With one big exception: natural rubber. This seems somewhat surprising given its bloody history: according to estimates, one human lost his life for every 10 kg of rubber sourced from King Leopold’s Congo. But, the story of rubber is also the story of a one colonialist’s endeavour and British success. In 1876, colonialist and explorer Henry Wickham stole 70,000 seeds from the Amazon, and thus enabled rubber plantations all over Asia.

Today the biggest rubber producers globally are Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam.  85% of global rubber production is done by small farmers (the beloved poster children of the Fairtrade Foundation …), who struggle to make ends meet with global rubber prices more often than not depressed below the cost of production.

So why is rubber not a prime target for the Fairtrade label? There are two reasons. One: Right from the start, rubber has been a key component    in the production of automobiles. Henry Ford even tried to establish his own plantation (‘Fordlandia’) – which cost him millions of U$ dollars as he did not realise that one cannot organise nature in the same way an assembly line can be managed. But that is another story.

Starting with the Ford Model T, the car industry, or rather the makers of car tyres, account for some 70% of all natural rubber consumption. And it would take a very committed supporter of Fair Trade to favour one car over another based solely on Fairly Traded tyres (if such an option existed).

The second, somewhat related reason: Most rubber products can also be made with artificial (synthetic) rubber – or with blends. E.g. passenger car tyres contain, on average, only 30% of natural rubber. Not a great starting point for a Fair Trade product. In addition to this, the rise and fall of the price of petroleum, from which synthetic rubbers are made, has more impact on the rubber price than almost anything else. Low petroleum prices mean low natural rubber prices, too. And to add insult to injury, Petroleum is a fossil fuel, which contributes to global warming. Natural rubber is a renewable resource, and due to their high leaf density, an acre of rubber trees absorbs more CO2 than an acre of Amazon rain forest.

So far none of this has swayed the half dozen tyre manufacturers still in business. They complain that rubber prices are still too high. And even if they were to switch to fairly traded rubber, with the volumes they need, there would not be enough Fair Trade sources available.

 

So, game over? Not quite, in just five years the Fair Rubber Association, a Non-Governmental Organization based in Germany, has managed to make inroads into a number of rubber products which do reach the consumer directly, i.e. the consumer can make a conscious choice to say: I support Fair Trade and therefore I buy a product with the Fair Rubber Association logo. Which means the supplier partners get EUR 0.50 kg DRC (Dry Rubber Content) as a Fair Trade premium – and the suppliers decide themselves what to spend that extra income on.

Fairly Traded rubber consumer products are, among others: Fair Squared condoms, Prolana mattresses, household gloves, hot water bottles …

And the Fair Rubber Association (whose Executive Secretary is an RSA fellow) is not giving up on tyres either. While the attempts to sway a car tyre manufacturer have not yielded much interest, it still hopes to find a cycle tyre/tube company which may take up the challenge. After all, cyclists are usually great supporters of Fair Trade AND environmental causes, and they are as close as can be to where the rubber hits the road.

For more information visit the Fair Rubber Association website- and, who knows, maybe someone within the RSA has a link to a bicycle company?

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