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Italian Government Issues Regulation for Socially and Ecologically Responsible Products

IPS (Latin America)

Italy is leading the way in a European drive to convince public authorities that they should adopt a policy of buying goods produced in a socially and ecologically responsible manner.

Last year, the Italian government issued a new regulation stating that public authorities should take account of sustainable development when they are issuing calls for tender.

Because schools are required to sell fair trade products in their canteens, it is estimated that this will lead to weekly sales of fair trade bananas and packets of biscuits of almost 300,000 each in 2007-12.

Paolo Agostini, an official responsible for public procurement with the Municipality of Rome, says that fair trade can be used as an educational tool and for promoting tolerance. Children are regularly fed dishes made with ingredients from the countries where migrants to Italy originated as part of anti-racism efforts.

The promotion of fair trade, he says, is one component of an overall ethical strategy for schools that also encourages cooking with organic food and the phasing out of environmentally destructive substances.

You shouldn’t have a system where fair trade is fashionable today and organic products tomorrow,’ he told IPS. ‘You have put all these things together in one package.’

Global sales of fair trade goods exceeded 1 billion euros (1.4 billion dollars) in 2005, the last year for which data is available. The European Union accounts for more than 60 percent of those sales.

Europe’s market for fair trade has been growing at around 20 percent per year since 2000 and by even higher in some individual countries. Data collated by Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International, a network based in Bonn, Germany, found an increase of 73 percent in Finland, 69 percent in Sweden, 62 percent in Austria and 57 percent in France in 2004-05.

Anti-poverty campaigners believe that public bodies have a pivotal role to play in boosting fair trade through giving preference to fair trade products when tendering.

With 1,500 billion euros (2,000 billion dollars) spent annually on public procurement by hundreds of thousands of bodies throughout Europe, the potential windfall for fair trade from a greater use of an ethical procurement policy is enormous.

‘It’s very important that public authorities give a good example in promoting poverty reduction and sustainable development,’ said Anja Osterhaus, coordinator of the Fair Trade Advocacy Office in Brussels. ‘If public authorities contribute to slave labour by buying the cheapest things without thinking, then that wouldn’t be a good example.’

Osterhaus contends there can be a multiplier effect by having fair trade goods at schools, in particular. ‘The fact that children in schools in Rome consume fair trade products means they bring the message home to their parents,’ she added.

Some public authorities have been reluctant, however, to favour fair trade over fears that they could incur the wrath of the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission.

The Brussels-based institution has been known to take a dim view of contracting of a restrictive nature, sometimes taking legal action over such issues.

Federica Leonarduzzi from the Spanish organisation IDEAS said that there are ‘doubts about the legal viability’ of buying fair trade in bulk among the Spanish authorities. ‘They are worried about not respecting European competition policy,’ she said.

A 2004 EU directive on awarding public sector contracts suggests, however, that environmental and social issues may be taken into account when procurement is taking place.

Nonetheless, fair trade campaigners are calling on the European Commission to amend the directive so that it gives preference to fair trade. They complain that three years after the directive was introduced, the Commission has still not come forward with promised guidelines on social considerations in public procurement.

‘The European Commission must propose a clearer directive to allow the market to be open to more fair trade goods,’ Moctar Fall from Interface, a Senegal-based network of African businesses in the food processing sector told IPS. ‘As things stand, the directive allows more conservative authorities to interpret it in a way that prevents them from buying fair trade.’

Campaigners have also argued that the EU should adopt a regulation on verifying if products meet the fair trade criteria of bringing a living wage to producers and of respecting the environment. They believe that this is necessary as consumers have become confused about the proliferation of products on supermarket shelves that carry labels designed to appeal to a consumer with a social conscience. Such products include the purportedly rainforest-friendly bananas of the multinational company Chiquita.

However, the European Parliament has recommended that any regulation should not be legally binding, to avoid onerous rules that could prove damaging to the growth of the fair trade sector.

Rules are also being sought at national level in some EU countries. In Italy, the fair trade movement is calling for the introduction of a law to define what fair trade practices entail and to recognise fair trade organisations as ‘enterprises’ that wish to operate differently to more orthodox firms.

In Belgium, the public administrations of its two main regions, Flanders and Walloonia, have both adopted a policy of consuming fair trade tea and coffee. So too have the administrations of the country’s main cities: Brussels, Antwerp, Charleroi and Ghent.

Campaigners say that their efforts to win over public authorities to fair trade have been aided by ministerial recommendations that authorities show preference for fair trade products. ‘If there is a political will, it is legally very possible to make a choice in favour of fair trade,’ said Samuel Poos from the Belgian Fair Trade Centre.

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