Fair Trade in jeopardy

9 03 2012

 Equal Exchange was founded in 1986 to support authentic fair trade by challenging  the existing trade model, which favored large plantations, agri-business, and multi-national corporations; to support small farmers; and to connect consumers and producers through information, education, and the exchange of products in the marketplace.

With the founding, they joined a growing movement of small farmers, alternative traders (ATOs), religious organizations, and non-profits throughout the world with like-minded principles and objectives.  The U.S. consumer co-operative movement has been an integral part of this movement.  Underlying Equal Exchange’s work is the belief that only through organization can small farmers survive and thrive.  The cooperative model has been essential for building this model of change.  From their website: the  founders envisioned a food system that empowers farmers and consumers, supports small farmer co-ops, and uses sustainable farming methods. They started with fairly traded coffee from Nicaragua and didn’t look back.

During the 1990’s, Equal Exchange joined with a number of other organizations to create the certifying agency, TransFair USA (now Fair Trade USA).  The goal was to create a mechanism, in a complex marketplace, to ensure that a company’s products were providing social, economic and environmental impact for the small farmer organizations that grew them.  With a third party certifier, it was hoped that consumers would have more confidence in their purchases without needing to background check every brand and product.  This turned out to be good business and Fair Trade USA grew as a result.

Deep controversies in the Fair Trade movement have been simmering for over a decade.  As time  passed, Fair Trade USA began to take on a life of its own.  Rather than confine itself to its purpose as a certifying agency, collecting fees from industries that used its seal and monitoring them to ensure that Fair Trade practices were being met, Fair Trade USA soon developed its own vision.  “Quantity over Quality”, “Breadth over Depth”, and other qualifiers came to be used to describe Fair Trade USA’s vision of a world in which vast numbers of products throughout the grocery store could be certified Fair Trade, in as fast a manner as possible.

Their problem was supply.  Working with small farmer organizations can be challenging and time-consuming.  These organizations don’t have the same access to market, credit, infrastructure, and technology that large plantations generally do.  Over the opposition of the ATOs, farmer organizations, and a host of other Fair Trade advocates, Fair Trade USA and its umbrella organization FairTrade Labelling Organization (FLO) began certifying plantation tea, bananas, cut flowers, and other products with a set of different, less rigorous standards than those elaborated for small farmer organizations.

Soon, large corporations began to see value in certification as well.  They discovered that consumers would respect all of their products, even if only one or two were certified as Fair Trade  (this happens in fabric collections too).  Fair Trade USA rapidly began courting big businesses into the Fair Trade “family”, such as Chiquita, Dole, and Nestle.  The Fair Trade advocates protested, but  to no avail. Big business profits grew and, as more volume got certified, Fair Trade USA continued to grow as well.

Equal Exchange feels that all their advances are now in jeopardy, because Fair Trade USA  has left the international Fair Trade System (FLO International/FairTrade International), lowered  standards, eliminated farmers from their governance model, and invited large-scale plantations into coffee and all other commodities.  

Equal Exchange has recently launched the Stand with Small Farmers campaign for authentic Fair Trade in response to these actions by Fair Trade USA. They believe that small farmer cooperatives are the heart of Fair Trade and the engine of real grassroots development.

The following is from a press release we just received:

This is not Fair Trade and we are asking you to join with us in differentiating Fair Trade USA’s model from the authentic small farmer Fair Trade that we are collectively building.

Current happenings

These actions, and many others throughout the years, have created large-scale opposition against the certifiers and bad feelings have mounted about the lack of transparency, accountability, openness, and representation on the boards and within the committees of FLO International and Fair Trade USA.  Little has changed.  Until this year, when the growing rift finally reached a head:

It is time to withdraw support from TransFair USA/FairTrade USA products.  They do not represent Fair Trade.

What are we asking?

  1. Please ask your friends and work colleagues to sign our public statement: http://www.equalexchange.coop/fair-trade-campaignThey may sign as organizations and/or individuals.
  2. Please continue to educate yourselves and others about the issues brewing in the Fair Trade world.  For more information on Equal Exchange’s perspective on the differences between Authentic Fair Trade and what Fair Trade USA is doing, please read Rink Dickinson’s views here:  http://smallfarmersbigchange.coop/2011/10/23/4269/.  For a producer point of view, please read this: http://smallfarmersbigchange.coop/2011/12/15/mexican-small-farmer-fair-trade-producers-speak-out-we-can-only-move-forward-with-authentic-fair-trade/.

We remain engaged with small farmers and with the international Fair Trade system.  We will keep you posted on events as they unfold. As always, thanks for your loyal support, your commitment, and for putting your values into action.

If you have any questions, please call Phyllis Robinson, Education & Campaigns Manager at Equal Exchange, at 774-776-7390.