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Planning for a Fair deal

The Interview
Typography
Picture of a woman with Fairtrade products in a shop

Planning for a Fair deal


The Interview
Edwin McGreal


FAIRTRADE. It’s still an unknown for many people in Mayo, but it is changing all the time.
Back in 2003 it was an alien concept to all but a handful of people. Laura Heneghan from Breaffy was one of that handful. She read of how Clonakilty in Co Cork had been the first town in Ireland to be granted the status of a Fairtrade Town. Never one for standing back and admiring, she set in motion plans to achieve the same status for Castlebar.
A little over three years after she and Eibhlin Heffernan called together the first committee, with the assistance of Fr Mike Murphy, Castlebar was bestowed with that status. And it was with great delight that all involved celebrated last month when Mayo’s county town became the fourteenth town/city in Ireland to be accorded Fairtrade status, shortly after Westport.
Those three years have seen Castlebar go from being a town where more people were probably able to speak Swahili than explain what Fairtrade was about to a place where the Fairtrade brand is widely displayed and supported. The Town Council endorses and actively promotes the brand and the concept, while at least four coffee shops sell Fairtrade coffee only. In addition, over a dozen businesses and most of the schools in the town have rowed in behind the project.
But the work is ongoing and the achieving of the status isn’t the end, merely another mark along the road for people like Laura Heneghan.
But, for the uninitiated, we’ll let Laura explain what, precisely, Fairtrade sets out to achieve.
“To sum it up, Fairtrade guarantees a better deal for Third World producers. It means the people that produce the products get paid a proper, decent, minimum wage and that there is no child labour involved. There are better working conditions, better environmental standards and the quality of the product is quite high,” she elaborates.
While Fairtrade products can be slightly more expensive than the alternative, the humanitarian guarantee that comes with them, in addition to the aforementioned quality, is enough to attract swathes of customers. The range of products is on the increase too, with tea, coffee, rice, chocolate, fruit and cotton clothes among the items available under the Fairtrade label.
Often times too, the Fairtrade products are the cheapest available, as evidenced by the fact that Michael O’Leary, the ultimate cost-cutter, has ensured that only Fairtrade coffee is served on Ryanair flights.
The Fairtrade organisation was established over a decade ago in Holland and has been in existence in Ireland for ten years. To help the organisation grow in different areas, the idea of Fairtrade towns/cities was conceived, whereby locations would receive status on meeting certain criteria.
There are six goals each area has to attain: a steering group must be established, official support must be received from the local Council, Fairtrade products must be sold in at least six shops, Fairtrade coffee must be available in at least four coffee shops and businesses and schools must become involved in the initiative. Public awareness must also be raised, through a PR campaign, before the town can be given the status.
It is a case of helping others to help themselves, something that Laura Heneghan has always believed in, and when you listen to her talk about Fairtrade you realise how easy it is to make a major difference.
“It’s so easy for businesses, cafés, shops and schools to become involved and for people generally. It’s such an easy way to help. It’s not charity. It’s just breaking down the trade barriers which are keeping the poor people poor and the rich people rich,” she added.
Laura Heneghan has always lived a pretty altruistic lifestyle. She thinks she gets this from her father’s mother and many of her aunties. Come what may, helping people has always been something she did without a second thought.
“I think I’ve always thought it was important to help. I’ve never really been much into material things. When we were younger we’d go on trips to the countryside, that helped to foster it. I always used to hate seeing people throwing cigarettes from cars, stuff like that. At school we used to go around picking up litter and we’d be told of the damage it would cause. I guess it hits home with some and not with others. It hit home with me,” she continued.
After national school at Scoil Raifteirí in Castlebar and secondary school across the road in St Joseph’s Convent, it was her progression to third level and into the National University of Ireland in Galway that really gave her the platform to make a difference.
“The different clubs and societies give you a great experience. I would have been involved with the SUAS Society, which is an educational development society, the Human Rights Society and also Dóchas Nasamu.”
It was through the last named that Laura undertook a huge task. Together with a number of friends, she set about fund-raising to build an orphanage for children in Kenya who were orphaned by the AIDS virus. They achieved their goal and after she had finished two years of her Civil Engineering course, Laura took a year out to go travelling, part of which included a visit to the orphanage in question. It opened her eyes.
“We lived with them, we ate with them, got to cook, help them prepare their food etc. We were there for Christmas and we got to see what their Christmas was like. It was so different. They would get very small things from Santa Claus, before they would go to Mass they would get up and wash their clothes and the only difference for the day was they would get lamb and goat with their stew instead of just cabbage. For them it was just any other day, they had nothing to get excited about,” she recalled.
Returning to Ireland after just under a year away, Fairtrade in Castlebar was steadily progressing. Awareness was being created and a very active committee had been set up.
Laura finished her degree and, now based at home again, working in Henaghan’s Healthfoods on Ellison Street, Fairtrade became like a second full-time job, eating up most of her spare time. Not that she complains, she revels in it, and now that Castlebar has the status there will be some celebrations to mark the achievement. There will be an official launch in February, but it will be back to the hard yards after that. Getting the name out there. Making a difference.
“Achieving the status is far from the end of the road, it is only the start really. Now that we have the status it means that we’ve created a demand for Fairtrade products and that is all the better for Fairtrade producers. So many people still aren’t aware, that’s the battle for us,” she concluded.
And you can be sure it is a battle that will be fought.