Lessons from a decade of campaigning on supermarket power

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The European Union’s new law on Unfair Trading Practices was officially passed in April 2019. It is the culmination of 10 years of Traidcraft Exchange’s EU lobbying and campaigning to curb supermarket power and strengthen the position of the workers and farmers who produce our food. Tom Wills reflects on the lessons of this process.

The Unfair Trading Practices Directive is a ground-breaking new law that brings in regulations to stop powerful food businesses, including big brands and supermarkets, from bullying their suppliers.

‘Unfair Trading Practices’ is a catch-all term covering a range of exploitative practices including paying suppliers’ months late and the last-minute cancellation of orders. If the law is properly enforced, these common unfair practices should become a thing of the past.

The ramifications for international development are huge: it means that the farmers in Southern countries who produce the food on our supermarket shelves will be able to get a fairer deal.

Traidcraft Exchange has campaigned for this law on-and-off for a decade, partnering with civil society organisations around Europe and further afield to put the pressure on Europe’s decision-makers to support change. This included mobilising our supporters to write to MEPs calling for an end to unfair trading practices, and handing in 43,000 postcards to the European Commission highlighting the abuse of buyer power in supermarket supply chains. We also met with MEPs, national governments and European civil servants.

We are delighted that the Directive has passed. And it offers an opportunity to reflect on the lessons of this process, which I’ve distilled into three main themes –

·       Offer solutions

·       Make the right friends

·       Persevere

Think about solutions early

The basic message that we wanted to convey to European policy-makers was that power in the food sector is a problem. Large retailers and food brands are too dominant, which means that they can get away with mistreating their suppliers.

The European Commission has understood this basic analysis for years, and energetic lobbying from European farmers - including driving their tractors up to the Parliament building to protest low milk prices - ensured that this issue remained high on the agenda.

Tom Wills (left) joins a panel debate with MEPs and European Commission officials on the UTP Directive

Tom Wills (left) joins a panel debate with MEPs and European Commission officials on the UTP Directive

This helped create the sense of an urgent need for workable policy solutions. We partnered with with the British Institute of International and Comparative Law on two papers (here and here) looking at how regulation of groceries supply chains could work in practice, while also adding into the mix our experience analysing the role of the UK’s Groceries Code Adjudicator.

This meant that, in meetings with MEPs and Commission officials, rather than just pointing out the problem we were able to propose properly considered solutions endorsed by different groups with different expertise. And this in turn meant that we were more credible, and our positions listened to.  

All the right friends

Traidcraft Exchange is a small, UK-based charity. To have any chance of success, we needed to have allies in Brussels who understood the intricate processes of EU law-making, as well as friends across Europe who were able to lobby their national representatives – picking up the phone to MEPs and Permanent Representatives to the EU.

So we were really lucky to work with a huge range of organisations who were also interested in tackling supermarket power: from Oxfam International and its various national chapters to the fair trade movement, to organisations campaigning on food waste and organic agriculture.

Such a large network of engaged allies across Europe means policy makers have a clear, united message to listen to. And it will continue to be helpful, not least because organisations will be able to scrutinise how successfully this law is brought into force in each Member State.

The Make Fruit Fair campaign was one of a number of initiatives focussed on curtailing the power of EU supermarkets

The Make Fruit Fair campaign was one of a number of initiatives focussed on curtailing the power of EU supermarkets

Persevere

Policy change can be slow and difficult to achieve. Until relatively recently, it wasn’t at all clear that the years of on-and-off work that my colleagues and I had put into this agenda was going to lead anywhere at all.

Various investigations and reports, from bodies such as the European Economic and Social Committee and the High Level Forum For a Better Functioning Food Supply Chain, had come and gone, their findings preserved in little-visited corners of the internet. And there were clear setbacks: the Supply Chain Initiative was set up in 2013 by the large retailers and brands as a self-regulatory initiative, promoting fairer trading practices but without any enforcement powers.

While the Supply Chain Initiative’s failure to win the confidence of suppliers ultimately led to the Commission proposing the Directive in its current form, this experiment with voluntary approaches ultimately wasted five years.

And then, at some point in late 2017, everything moved. Phil Hogan, the Agriculture Commissioner, announced his intention to prioritise tackling unfair trading practices in his remaining time as Commissioner. The European Union’s legislative cogs began turning. All of our research and campaigning, going back to 2008, began to bear fruit.

The Directive received final sign-off earlier this year and will now be brought into law in each of the EU member states over the next two years. It’s only a minimum standard, and we hope that the national-level laws go even further in tackling unfair trading practices.    

And although the Directive may not actually apply to the UK (that depends on Brexit – see this blog), it will certainly provide protections to farmers and workers in the Global South who supply food to European supermarkets, and as such is a major step in the right direction for ensuring that trade tackles poverty.

This is, after all, is why Traidcraft Exchange exists.