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Max Havelaar Fair trade label marks 25 years in Switzerland

Workers in Panama sorting fair trade bananas

Workers in Panama sorting fair trade bananas

(James A. Rodriguez)

A quarter-century after hitting Swiss supermarket shelves, fair trade label Max Havelaar is doing good – and well. 

“Initially, the big supermarkets had reservations about the reliability of small-scale farmers and the quality of their products,” remembers Rolf Buser, the first managing director of Max Havelaar’s Swiss branch. Now the label is thriving. 

In 1992, six Swiss aid organizations along with the State Secretariat for Economic Affairsexternal link launched a local Max Havelaar Foundation – four years after the original was established in the Netherlands. Today, the parent organization is called Fairtrade Internationalexternal link, which represents 28 fair trade groups around the world. 

Max Havelaar is not a real person, but rather a fictional character from a 19th-century novel criticizing the colonial coffee trade in the Dutch East Indies. Fairtrade International, of which Switzerland’s Max Havelaar Foundation is a member, tries to secure better conditions and pay for more than 1.5 million small-scale farmers and workers around the world. 

Swiss success 

Speaking with Swiss public radio, SRFexternal link, on Thursday, Buser says that while working on development projects in Latin America, he had seen “how small coffee and cocoa farmers were suffering on account of fluctuating market prices”. 

Fair trade coffee was the first Max Havelaar product to enjoy commercial success in Switzerland, thanks to intense campaigning and the acceptance of retailers Migros and Coop. After coffee came products like honey, cocoa, sugar, tea, and in 1997, bananas. Today, more than 50% of bananas sold in Switzerland carry the Max Havelaar label. 

The product palette is broader now and also includes more perishable items, like dairy and pastries. Last year, sales of Max Havelaar products went up by 21% – with consumers in Switzerland spending CHF628 million, or CHF75 ($77) per capita.

A good deal?

Farmers themselves have more limited purchasing power. On the world markets, a kilo of cocoa beans might sell for just CHF1.30. A fair trade buyer like Max Havelaar would pay about double that. 

Swiss initiatives like Choba Choba and Schöki pay even more. They argue that fair trade should mean paying rates that allow farmers to grow their businesses. 

Meanwhile, another former Max Havelaar director, Paola Ghillani, says there should be a fair trade system specifically for Swiss and European farmers. 

“Not respecting those who produce our food is a symptom of a decadent society,” Ghillani told Swiss public radio, RTSexternal link, on Thursday.

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