Twenty-two years ago, Rink Dickinson, Jonathan Rosenthal, and Michael Rozyne founded the first Fair Trade coffee and tea organization in the United States. Soon thereafter, their first Fair Trade coffee line, Café Nica, was launched. At that time, the Sandinistas were governing Nicaragua and there was an embargo preventing Nicaraguan products from being exported to the United States. The specialty coffee craze hadn’t yet caught on like wildfire throughout the country. There was no Fair Trade seal. People thought these three guys were crazy.
The times have certainly changed since then. The Sandinistas were voted out of power (only to have been voted back in a few years ago.) Neighborhood coffee shops abound and many consumers can differentiate between a high quality, fairly grown cup of coffee and the majority of everything else being served out there. The Fair Trade seal is stamped on many lines of coffee, tea, fruit, flowers, and other products.
But what has been the overall impact? Are producers better off today than they were in 1986? Are they more organized? Have they won more rights from their governments? Are consumers more informed about, engaged, and ready to demand changes to the unfair trade and agriculture policies that determine the well-being (or not) of small farmers and dictate everything about our food system (the process by which food gets from field to table)? Twenty years later, what can we conclude about either Southern or Northern social movements and what they have accomplished?
Rink Dickinson, Co-President of Equal Exchange, has written an article which offers his perspective and insights into these questions. As one of the founders of Equal Exchange, he has a unique vantage point from which to write about the history of the Fair Trade movement over these past 22 years. Paradigm Press has recently published Rink’s article in a collection of other essays entitled, Democracy Works: Joining Theory and Action to Foster Global Change, edited by Torry Dickinson, Terrie Becerra, and Summer Lewis.
In his article, Rink offers us a review of the Fair Trade movement. He takes three moments in time – 1988, 1995 and 2005 – and provides us with a snapshot of each era by examining the economic impact, social movement impact in the South, social movement impact in the North, and the overall reform potential of Fair Trade. It’s an interesting, and I would say unique perspective, of Fair Trade that I haven’t seen put forth before. The publishers have allowed us to extract 500 words from his original article to reprint here; the book itself may be purchased at bookstores or on-line. So here is a slightly edited version of his conclusion:
PUTTING THE MOVEMENT BACK INTO FAIR TRADE
“There have been great successes in the development of fair trade in the past 20 years. Chief among these successes are the active involvement of millions of Northern consumers, the major role played by small farmers at the table of international trade, the leveraging of the market in their direction, and the development of mission-based market organizations’ capacity to leverage the economic system towards the interests of consumers and small producers.
These successes have come at a huge cost, however, as the Southern small farmers have been permanently betrayed by the non-profit certifiers who are trying to control the fair trade system. These nonprofits are so keen to meet the real and imagined needs of big retailers that they have sold out small farmers involved in producing tea, citrus, bananas, and other products. The certifiers are doing their best to make it impossible for small farmers in those products to learn from and follow the footsteps of coffee producers. Essentially the reform potential of the fair trade system has been undone both by fair trade’s success and by the unhealthy domination of the system by nonprofits that have long since lost their way.
This does not mean we should despair, however, because our current plight can be dramatically changed with wisdom and willpower. The greatest need to rebuild fair trade’s overall reform potential is the education of informed Northern consumer-citizens. Consumers cannot be seen simply as consumers. In mission-based fair trade work, our goal when interacting, sharing, and talking with as well as selling to consumers has to be more than trying to get them to buy our products.
Northerners and U.S. citizens, even more so than others, are extremely adept at cultivating our need for and interest in things. Our society is awash with things and our consumption levels are at historic and astonishing levels. Yet despite the awesome catering to the power of U.S. consumers, most of our consumption leaves us empty.
We need to develop our consumer power and our citizen power concurrently, and fair trade is one of the most important platforms on which to do this. Consumers need to engage in a process of taking responsibility, asking questions, and re-asking questions. Most of the answers are not there yet. The answers will only evolve through the process of asking those questions in relation to other consumers, to mission-based organizations, to farmers and producers, and to the retailers.
While consumers are doing that, mission-based fair trade organizations need to support both consumers and producers. To the extent that our organizations challenge and engage Northern consumer citizens, we create more space for real alternatives to develop. Our organizations are ultimately only as strong as our capacity to nurture and develop that space.
As always, small farmers and other fair-trade producers have the greatest challenge. They need to constantly improve and focus on economic issues. But, as the past 20 years of fair trade demonstrates, they need engaged, committed consumers in relation to them, ultimately as much or more than they just need economic support.
The opportunities are then to keep building new and more holistic models of consumer- citizen and producer-citizen cooperation.”
What do you think?