Thanks to everyone who commented on my last post, “To Tell the Truth: Who Owns Fair Trade?” There were many good points raised (so please take a moment to browse through them), as well as a few questions so I thought I’d try to briefly reiterate and clarify some of the central issues.
Poverty Alleviation or Structural Transformation?
Dan Fireside and hallomet steven both discuss the discrepancies in approaches which underlie the conflict between TransFair USA and others in the fair trade movement. This quote, in hallomet steven’s comment, from Francisco VanderHoff Boersma, co-founder of the first fair trade certifying body, Max Havelaar, and the renowned small farmer co-operative in Mexico, UCIRI (Union of Indigenous Communities of the Region of Isthmus) nicely sums up the heart of the differences.
“Poverty is not the problem. The problem is an unjust and irrational system of trade. Fair Trade’s current focus on the effects of the system (i.e. poverty) and not the means of changing it (developing the values and principles necessary for creating a new type of market) reflects a major crisis for the fair trade movement.” In a recent book written by this early founder of Fair Trade, he makes the argument that the Fair Trade movement should stick to its original principles as imagined by the members of UCIRI. Equal Exchange is committed to this vision.
“Fair is Relative”
Miriam Harlan and Paul Drake both asked: given this controversy how can one know which products are more fairly traded than others; which products should consumers buy?
Great questions and I wish there were an easy, black and white answer about how “fair” a product is. I would say that products that carry TransFair or the IMO Fair for Life seals are definitely “fairly traded products” and one should certainly feel good about purchasing them. Both systems have a set of standards; the products they certify meet those standards. The question is how rigorous are the standards and what do they set out to achieve?
Questions about specific products aside, however, the current controversy is more about the direction in which TransFair, as a certifying body is heading. As Santiago Paz stated, “It’s as if they’re driving a car going 70 miles an hour and they have put their foot on the gas pedal. Now it’s going 90, 100, 120-mph and suddenly the small farmer in the passenger seat is flying out the window. They are so concerned with growing the system, advancing at all costs, that they will only end with the extinction of small farmers.” Part of what Santiago meant, was that in a rush to get as many products into the Fair Trade system as possible, the certifying bodies (FLO and TransFair USA), are in fact, weakening the standards. So, rather than doing the more difficult work of BUILDING supply chains from small farmers and EDUCATING consumers about the importance of supporting those particular products, they are going for quantity over quality. In this way, they are undermining efforts to build alternative trade models and to support small farmers.
Take tea for example. Most tea comes from plantations. The predominant ownership and management model of these plantations is rooted in colonial history. In many cases, worker conditions have remained relatively the same throughout the years. In an effort to get tea into the Fair Trade system, FLO allowed plantation tea to become a certifiable product (FLO has created a separate set of standards for plantations than the ones used for small farmer organizations).
We do not quarrel with the fact that many plantations are run by benevolent owners who treat their workers well. We do not argue that if the plantation owner makes more money by meeting Fair Trade standards and if they use a small portion of that extra money to make improvements to the plantation, that that is a bad thing. We certainly hope that plantation workers’ lives improve through Fair Trade. Our argument is not that any of this is wrong; we simply want more.
At Equal Exchange, we believe deeply in an alternative model. Our approach, however, (shared by other Alternative Trade Organizations in this country and elsewhere) is a much more difficult and painstaking one. We know that there are many small tea farmers who have no power, no services, technical assistance, or market access. Yet, these farmers are struggling against all odds to produce their crops using sustainable farming techniques that preserve natural resources. They are struggling to survive, to remain on their land, and to maintain healthy communities.
Our dream is to work with those organizations of small farmers and support them in their efforts to strengthen their organizations, develop their communities, and protect their eco-systems. We think that that is a far more powerful model. But it takes time. It is much easier to get on the phone and place an order with the manager of a plantation (who most likely speaks English, understands our culture, and has the technological infrastructure to send us what we want the moment we want it.) Small farmer organizations cannot compete in the same way.
We’ve been working on building an alternative tea model – in support of small farmer organizations – now for over twenty years, and in many ways we feel like we are just starting. Yet, it is only through this type of commitment from ATOs, consumers, and activists, that organizations of small farmers will be able to gain knowledge, experience, and ultimately, economic and political power. Change is possible and it’s the kind of change we believe in. In a fast-past and heavily marketed world, this is the slow-trade version of the slow-food movement. It isn’t sexy, and it requires commitment, but it has real, long-lasting value.
So what’s all the fuss about the name change again?
Why is there such controversy over TransFair’s name change and what’s the connection to the deeper issues that have resurfaced as a result? According to Rob Everts, co-director of Equal Exchange, “…it is relevant, that a certifier seeking this overreach, this monopoly of the movement—has in fact worked hard to water down the standards and original intent of fair trade. It is relevant that this group has in fact engaged in the conflict of interest between neutrally certifying and market (“brand”) building. It is relevant that this certifier seeking to be the one-stop shopping source for all things fair trade has in fact sought to bring coffee plantations into the system, and has eagerly brought in plantations in other industries before it could be proven that they either did or did not have a detrimental impact on small producers’ market share (in addition to the other critiques of plantations in the FLO system).
I hope these reflections and responses help clarify the issues. I’d like to leave you all with Andy Good’s final words in his comment on the previous blog post, “100%er’s (ATOs) have always been social entrepreneurs who have a gift for survival in business. We must keep innovating and have relevant solutions to the major world problems. Poverty alleviation may have been the focus 20 years ago. This has transformed into a more complex question of climate change, food security and sustainability and of course gender empowerment. Let’s continue the innovation we began in the early 80’s!!!!”
So let’s speak our truth and fight for what we believe in. ATOs will keep on innovating and we hope that consumers will continue to keep themselves educated and will buy products from those organizations (and the certifying bodies) they believe in.
Let’s hear it for the Slow Trade Movement!
cartoon courtesy of John Klossner, copywrite 2011