FIVE friends huddle around a well-worn wooden kitchen table: a pensioner-activist (Jennifer Sleeman); a former Sinn Fein counsellor (Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin), a Methodist layperson (Imelda Kingston), a Canadian chocolate maker (Allison Roberts); and the owner of a local business supplies firm (Trevor Kingston).
It is a group that represents the Clonakilty Fairtrade Committee, and today they are talking about a very important anniversary: it’s 15 years since Clonakilty was awarded Ireland’s first ever Fairtrade Town status.
In 2003, a plucky band of volunteers made this happen and leading the charge was a pensioner armed with a determined vision to make a difference: Jennifer Sleeman.
She will mark her 89th birthday in private this year; meanwhile across town a gala dinner celebrating Clonakilty Fairtrade’s anniversary and honouring her work will be in full swing, replete with John McKenna as keynote speaker, who never fails to find the right words to praise those who are most worthy of it.
A lifelong activist and campaigner, these days Jennifer is taking it easy, although the knitting needles and yards of yarn are close by the computer from where no doubt she keeps an eye on the world around her.
“I do see the world as deteriorating, and if I can do any small thing to stop that happening or push it the other way then I’d like to,” she says. “I suppose that’s it, really, because I’ve lived a long time and seen a great many changes, and some of them are not for the better.”
Jennifer arrived in Ireland 60 years ago. Up to then, hers was a life lived on the road following her mother and father. Later marrying and becoming an army wife, the transient lifestyle that came with it followed. Eventually, Mr and Mrs Sleeman retired to a dairy farm in North Cork, near Mallow.
“I milked cows for about 17 years, we had 25 head of cattle which was a sensible number in those days! Later, we moved to Ardfield (just outside Clonakilty) for a while, and I loved it there. We had a field and I had goats, bees, and poultry, we grew vegetables and there were old apple trees left over from the farmer. When my husband died I moved to Clonakilty.
“I took it for granted back then that food was local. I became rather horrified when I discovered supermarkets — I can even remember the first packet of frozen peas and thinking ‘what are those?!’”
“I don’t know that local food is a passion, I just think it’s sensible.”
The simplicity of the statement is striking. Sensible and simple is probably the best reason I have yet heard in support of local food. After all, non-local food is the antithesis of all that is sensible and simple.
And yet, there are things we enjoy that cannot be local, no matter how hard we try: tea, coffee, bananas and chocolate are all foods we enjoy daily but will never be grown locally.
It’s not so simple to know how foods sourced at the end of a long supply chain originating in countries far away are grown, by whom and in what conditions. This is where Fairtrade comes in.
“To me, Fairtrade is a story about my daughters,” says Jennifer. “My youngest daughter visited Nicaragua, came back and told me all about how important Fairtrade was for the people there and the difference it made to those that were a part of it and those that weren’t.
“Shortly after that my eldest daughter invited Peter Gaynor (head of Fairtrade Ireland) to come and give a talk about Fairtrade. I had heard two different perspectives and thought ‘I must do something about this.’
“I got together the Church of Ireland Minister, Reverend Ian Jonas; Father Gerald Galvin from the Catholic Church in Clonakilty, Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin and Imelda Kingston over a coffee morning one day and decided we needed to do more. From there it flourished.”
The Clonakilty Fairtrade Committee began steadily campaigning; raising awareness and encouraging more adoption of Fairtrade products in the town.
“Imelda and I walked the town talking to people about Fairtrade, and I remember the day we asked the Town Council if they would use Fairtrade products and they said they would be delighted to.
“We were pushing an open door, people were very receptive,” says Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin.
“In Clonakilty, if there’s a positive vision then 99% of people will buy into an idea. The five people on the original committee gelled very well and Jennifer was our leader with her vision and passion; we just did things and it caught the imagination of people in the community.
“Fairtrade is not a charity. It’s about empowering people to choose Fairtrade products and to know that, when they do, the farmer that grew it is getting a fair deal without exploitation.
Jennifer recalls; “Cionnaith was very good at collecting up all the paper cuttings reporting what we were up to,
“I was in Dublin one day for something completely different and I thought ‘I’m going to go to the Fairtrade office.’ So bravely off I went, and I really think that was what swung it for us to get the Fairtrade status — that I actually went there. And then, because I was old, I had the free transport so I went all round Ireland where I was invited to talk about Fairtrade. The whole thing has been a lovely social occasion for me! But starting a thing is easy, it’s keeping it going that’s difficult.”
Fast forward 15 years, and Fairtrade is caught trying to balance the grassroots engagement it needs to keep pushing the message of empowerment for both farmers and consumers, and working with larger corporate brands who engage with Fairtrade.
Allison Roberts is the founder of Exploding Tree, a small bean-to-bar chocolate maker using Fairtrade cocoa beans sourced in Ghana, West Africa. She found herself involved with the Clonakilty group nine years ago not long after she arrived in the town.
“I think the struggle we’re up against now,” says Allison, “is seeing how something that started as a grassroots, small community movement goes through a huge shift where big brands have latched onto it as something that is ‘trendy’.”
Meaningful change for Fairtrade growing communities requires a long term commitment, something that Roberts feels is not always forthcoming from large corporates compared to small local businesses.
“The knock on effect for the producer if a big corporate does decide to work with Fairtrade is amazing, but if they stop the hit to the farmers is huge.
“Small business is good for so many reasons: they are the biggest employers; they support other local business and they help small towns to flourish and in general are more ethically minded.”
Trevor Kingston is chairperson of Clonakilty Fairtrade Committee.
“The ethos of Clonakilty has always been to see the glass as half full; working collectively as a community for the benefit of everyone. But the future for sustaining Fairtrade is to have continual engagement, and we find working with our local schools is a great way to keep that going,” he said.
“We do talks and the students do projects — they develop a passion for the idea and convince their parents to buy Fairtrade products during the weekly shop. It all adds to the ripple effect of every little bit helping.”
Imelda Kingston, an original member of the Committee, thinks the success of Fairtrade in Ireland is down to the way Irish people are.
“Ireland has always been a very empathetic culture. My own children would see something that was Fairtrade and insist that we’d have to get it, even if it was just one thing. And that is key: we’re not asking people for all their shopping to be Fairtrade, but one product once a week combined with buying local is a fantastic formula, and one that is sustainable.”
Fairtrade Fortnight takes place every March. The committee have been fortunate to have had many international Fairtrade producers visiting over the last 15 years, going to schools with growers from Nicaragua and Guatemala, giving talks and attending public events where the growers can tell their story.
“That’s very important,” says Jennifer. “Because it was a real person, my daughter coming back from Nicaragua, and telling the story of Fairtrade that really got things going.”
One of the misconceptions the committee looks to change is that Fairtrade products are far more expensive.
“We say, don’t ask why one is dearer, ask why one is cheaper,” says Cionnaith. “The difference is a farmer being exploited or a farmer receiving a fair price for their crop.”
Trevor added: “It’s like the old saying goes, ‘give a man a fish and it’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll feed his family for life’. We’re buying direct from the farmers which creates a market which they can use to sustain themselves and build thriving communities.”
Five years ago, for their tenth birthday, Clonakilty was awarded Fairtrade Town of the Year. Celebrations were had but, says Cionnaith, the real achievement was noticing retailers stocking Fairtrade goods on their shelves and consumers making the choice to purchase those goods as a natural part of their shopping habit.
“When we are visited by growers from a Fairtrade farm, they tell us how Fairtrade has a positive impact on their families and communities: building a well, or sending their children to school instead of working on the plantations. Their lives are improved by the small effort we make here to buy their Fairtrade products.”
Allison explains: “We want Fairtrade to sit at the heart of a larger ideology of food. It’s not just about the logo: we want to create a framework that celebrates the decisions we make around what we buy and from where: knowing the producer, how they made the product and creating a community around where our food comes from.
“Fairtrade is for the people we can’t see because they’re on the other side of the world. Fairtrade becomes more important when it sits within this bigger framework of consumer decision making: taking more of interest in what we are buying; the country of origin or even just taking a look at the ingredients.”
Trevor added: “The job of the committee is to constantly keep putting the message out there to encourage consumers to buy Fairtrade goods and generating demand so retailers will continue to stock them. Our Fair & Local Gala Dinner is part of that too,” says Trevor.
The Fair & Local Gala Dinner takes place during A Taste of West Cork Food Festival, on Sunday September 16, at 7pm, at Fernhill House Hotel in Clonakilty. Guest Chef, Caitlin Ruth of Deasy’s Restaurant in Ring, is presiding over a five-course menu showcasing the variety of ethical produce from West Cork: both Fairtrade and local.
A drinks reception by Beara Ocean Gin with canapes and Parisian jazz vibes from local musicians await guests on arrival.
A short film, produced by Ambiguous Fiddle Media, will pay homage to Jennifer Sleeman’s achievements developing the town’s ethical food ethos; and a keynote speech by John McKenna will surely rouse the guests into delivering yet another 15 years of Fairtrade success in Clonakilty and beyond.
Tickets are €50pp and are available via www.flavour.ie/fairtrade