Archive for October, 2011

* * * Public Statement for Immediate Release * * *

United Students for Fair Trade Withdraws Support from Fair Trade USA/Transfair – Calls for Reform to Fair Trade Standards

25 October 2011

As an independent and integral voice in the Fair Trade movement, United Students for Fair Trade has held many meetings to conclude on where we stand on Transfair/Fair Trade USA’s recent decision to leave FLO.

We are deeply concerned by FT USA’s move to leave FLO and many other decisions made preceding it.

We have analyzed the potential consequences of the new changes and have decided that the moves FT USA is making will be detrimental to the progress the movement has achieved for producers and artisans all over the world.These lowered standards undermine the Fair Trade values producers, activists, and consumers have advocated for since the inception of the Fair Trade movement in the late nineties. Since this time, public outcry from community stakeholders to uphold the integrity of the standards have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears at Transfair/Fair Trade USA. We have therefore concluded that until these community stakeholders – small scale farmers, producers, workers, community and student activists, and 100% Fair Trade businesses – can reconvene to assess these changes, we can no longer in good conscience promote Transfair/Fair Trade USA products.

We hereby pull our support from Transfair/Fair Trade USA and encourage others in the movement to do the same until drastic reforms can be made.

We fear that without such action from Fair Trade supporters, Fair Trade will entropy into a little more than a cheap marketing ploy. Increasing fair-label washing which will cause more consumer distrust and confusion and cripple the power of the movement to make real changes in farmers’ lives. Fair Trade standards should not be tailored to business or corporations. Corporations should tailor their businesses to meet the needs of farmers! If these entities would like to associate themselves with having ethical products, they should have to make the same commitment to these values and the producers who deserve it that those smaller businesses before them have successfully made.

Why would we sell out on Fair Trade values at the point of entry to this market – the very moment when our movement’s bargaining power against corporations is at its peak? We believe that Transfair/Fair Trade USA’s willingness to bend standards is the consequence of a conflict of interest in their funding structure and a lack of accountability on their board. It seems obvious to us that their desire to take on more lucrative certification contracts, more so than any purported issues with supply, are motivating the alarming deviations from the founding-principles of Fair Trade, such as the inclusion of plantation-grown commodities, lower multi-ingredient standards, and their launch into commodities like apparel and bananas that activists have asked them not to pursue without more cautious forethought.

While we look forward to discussing these points with our fellow activist supporters, farmers, and 100% Fair Trade businesses in the near future, we’ve outlined some of our main critiques below: (more…)

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Equal Exchange, a worker-owned co-op with 100 members, wishes to express our strongest support for those moved to Occupy Wall Street and other cities in the pursuit of economic and social justice. We are inspired by your direct, non-violent challenge to those most responsible for the systematic dismantling of the social contract. Corporations and their enablers in Congress have created a morally indefensible concentration of wealth at the top that has been decades in the making and is at the heart of this seemingly spontaneous outpouring of protest. And the human toll has been immense.

Reckless investment bankers have gambled livelihoods away. Outsourcing, offshore tax havens and free trade agreements have contributed to the intolerable number of unemployed. Corporate lobbyists and their revolving door regulators have weakened health and safety protections and throttled the labor unions counted on by so many to defend living standards. Agribusiness consolidation and control of the food system has devastated family farms while contributing to the obesity epidemic across the country. And the steady disinvestment in public services and education has placed the American dream beyond reach for millions.

At Equal Exchange we have been building an alternative to the prevailing models of business and capital for 25 years. We have worked with farmer cooperatives around the world to build markets and at prices that enable farmers to stay on their land and provide food and a future for their children. We work every day to give meaning to the democratic principles we practice within our cooperative.

We encourage our members and wider network of supporters and participants to stand with you, join the tent cities, donate what they can, for as long as it takes to restore fairness and equity in our society.

Rob Everts, Co-President

Equal Exchange

West Bridgewater, MA

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This is the third and final part of Rink Dickinson’s speech on the state of fair trade, delivered at the IRTF conference in Cleveland, Ohio on October 23rd.

Read Part I here.

The Trojan horse for plantations was tea.

After the initial success of the Max Havelaar fair trade certification scheme in Holland the fair trade certification idea spread. Soon there was a Max Havelaar Belgium and Switzerland. An allied but competitive seal started in Germany called Transfair Germany. Soon there was a Transfair Austria and Luxembourg. These two organizations did not like each other and fought for marketing turf and liscensing revenues/sales dollars. Transfair Germany and therefore all the Transfairs brought in plantations in tea with the idea that if you couldn’t find small farmers, just substitute in a plantation, make a few changes and voila fair trade tea would exist. The reality is the Germans did not understand how fair trade functioned. Remember the key economic and social engine of fair trade is access. The Dutch vociferously objected to plantation tea even being considered fair trade. After several years of fighting over this and a host of other issues the two organizations were forced to merge creating Fair Trade Labeling Organization. In that merger tea plantations and hence plantations were accepted as part of fair trade.

So how has fair trade tea developed? Not at all like coffee. Tea is very dear to my heart and I have, and Equal Exchange has, continued to put significant time into trying to build an authentic small farmer model in fair trade. It has been a very hard road to travel down for a host of reasons but primarily because of the plantation question. (more…)

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This is the second in a three part series by Rink Dickinson, Co-Founder and Co-President of Equal Exchange

Read Part I here.

Part II:  Building Fair Trade Coffee:  How and Why?

Let’s start with coffee.  How did fair trade in coffee happen?  How was this supply chain built?  Who took the risk?  Who benefited?  What can we learn from this history?

It’s not like just one day Starbucks or Green Mountain or Dunkin Donuts woke up and decided it would be a really hip idea to buy from small farmers coops.   No; it took years and decades of work to organize, entice and cajole these worthy giant corporations to do it our way.  And let’s be clear; we did not ask them for their advice on how to trade fairly, how to support small farmers and how to have fair trade “impact”.  Remember that word impact because it is being bandied about quite a lot by the people who are trying to steal fair trade from us.  Their argument is whatever leads to higher volume by definition is higher fair trade impact. No, Starbucks and Green Mountain and Dunkin Donuts had very high volumes of coffee but no fair trade impact until we allowed them into our system on our rules.  And to be clear large corporations are welcome to participate in, and profit from and support authentic fair trade.  But they or their unconscious surrogates such as Transfair USA are not welcome to take over our fair trade.  They can have all the corporate responsibility programs they desire.  That is great.  But no they do not get our beautiful model that activists, consumers, small farmers and alternative trade organizations have patiently built for decades. Fair trade is ours not theirs.

The coffee supply chain was built by alternative trade organizations such as GEPA in Germany, Fair Trade Organizatie and Stichting Ideele in Holland, and Twin Trading in the UK.

These organizations and their NGO allies went out and made connections with small scale farmers.  Usually those farmers were selling to middle level traders who were exploiting them.  The farmers all were in some process of forming or strengthening democratically controlled coops that would keep the surplus made in the coffee trade with the farmers.

These organizations and their NGO allies then had to slowly build the coops’ capacity.  The coops had to learn how to wet and dry process their coffee.  Without controlling the flow of coffee into the processors and the internal terms of trade small farmers would remain exploited.

The alternative trade organizations and the coops then had to learn how to export and import.  How do you get the legal right to do that?  How do you send money in a way that it actually gets to the coop?  Speaking of money, how would all this coffee get financed?  Fair trade lenders were built from this network to solve this part of the problem.  What about quality?  How would the coops learn to control quality and educate their members to grow and process quality coffee?

There was a lot of economic risk taken and no meaningful profit to made from fair trade.  Only mission driven traders and non profits and visionary coops would take on this type of task.

For the alternative trade organizations (ATO’s), there was a whole other set of work on the market side.  The ATO’s needed to learn to import, again to learn how to understand quality and build a quality system that worked for the coops and for the alternative trade organizations.  The ATO’s needed to find sympathetic roasters who would work with them on terms that were reasonable.  And the ATO’s needed to find stores and distributors and ultimately consumers who would support small farmers and fair trade. (more…)

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The following is the first of three parts of a speech by Rink Dickinson, co-founder and co-president of Equal Exchange, given at a conference of the InterReligious Task Force on Central America, on October 22nd in Cleveland, Ohio about the current state of Fair Trade.

I want to thank IRTF for the opportunity both for myself and for Equal Exchange to be sharing some of our thoughts on the current crisis in fair trade. For Equal Exchange the InterReligious Task Force on Central America is an extremely important ally. We share a common history with IRTF in terms of our roots and our inspirations. And both of us have been at this for quite some time showing up fighting for the right thing and most of the time fighting upstream. We applaud you for your work showing up month to month, year to year and now decade to decade. Your work is vital. We need citizen involvement to have any type of world that we will want to live in and pass on to future generations. We need this involvement for our politics and social development in the U.S., for politics and social development in Central America and we need this involvement to have any hope of a live real authentic fair trade movement that connects small producers in the south with consumer/citizens in the U.S. IRTF is a model of that type of involvement and one that needs to spread to other U.S. cities and communities.

I want to cover several topics today. First, I want to share some of the root DNA that I believe was put into Equal Exchange from the beginning by Jonathan, Michael and me as founders because I believe that DNA has directly led to Equal Exchange having the success we have had and because I believe we can build more successful organizations and movements if we share our learning. Because we are moving rapidly towards a time where all kinds of products will claim to be fair trade due to the weakening and betrayal of fair trade, we as activists need to build our skills to understand how trade works and what we think real fair trade looks like.

With this goal, I want to examine two supply chains: the amazingly successful small farmer coffee supply chain which activists, consumers, alternative traders, fair trade certifiers and commercial companies built over the last twenty five years and its cousin, the weak, poorly articulated, small farmer tea supply chain that Equal Exchange has also spent over a decade trying to build. By examining these supply chains and bearing in mind the ones we don’t have time for today such as chocolate and bananas I believe it will become more clear what authentic fair trade looks like. Finally, I will try to share some of our thinking about what we need to do next in this time when fair trade has been first weakened and then betrayed. (more…)

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Rob Everts, Co-President of Equal Exchange and Remberto Rumaldo Ascensio, President of Las Colinas looking at new coffee plants

Just a few weeks ago I accompanied Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing and Rob Everts, Co-Director of Equal Exchange to El Salvador to attend the First International Gathering of the Small Farmer Symbol.  We took advantage of the time in El Salvador to visit with our small coffee farmer coop partners and see how they’re doing.  On the 2 1/2 hour drive out to Tacuba, in the western department of Ahuachapan, I was reminded by our driver, one of the Las Colinas Board members, that this year marked the 15th anniversary of our trading relationship with the co-op.

Pedro Ascensio, Marketing Coordinator, Las Colinas Co-op

During those 15 years, much has changed.  As far as I can tell, it is all for the better.

The 89 members of Las Colinas own the 500-acre co-op collectively, a form of land ownership that is fairly uncommon these days.  Like many other agricultural co-operatives in El Salvador, Las Colinas used to be a large coffee hacienda; many of the 89 members, their fathers and/or grandfathers used to work there as day laborers picking coffee.  Most people have heard about  what the conditions were like in those days working on coffee, sugar, cotton and other plantations.  In fact, throughout Central America, it was in large part due to the oppressive work conditions on large plantations that ultimately led workers to band together with unionists, and representatives of progressive student,  women’s, religious, and other organizations to spark the populist social justice revolutions of the ’70s and ’80s.

In 1980, in a futile effort to stave off the impending civil war, the Salvadoran government passed an Agrarian Reform Law which turned over several hundred large plantations virtually overnight into worker owned and managed cooperatives.  The trouble was that the workers were given the land (which they had to pay back), but no technical assistance, access to bank credits, or market information.  In the 40-odd years since that time, most of the agrarian reform co-ops have gone bankrupt and have had to sell their land or been forced to give it back to the banks.

Las Colinas remains one of the few of those co-ops still surviving.  Seven years ago when I first visited them, things were not looking so good.  True, they were organized and running the farm themselves and the four or so containers of coffee they were selling to Equal Exchange was delicious and high-quality.  But their processing equipment was old, (I remember thinking that the machinery looked like something you’d see in a Dr. Seuss book), the coffee trees were old, and the soils depleted.  Of most concern, the interest on the agrarian reform debt was exceedingly high and was mounting each year.  Despite the fact that Equal Exchange was paying high prices for their coffee, the members of Las Colinas could not seem to get out from under their debt.

In the past seven years, a lot has happened to instill a sense of hope about the future of this co-operative.  Having direct relationships with their buyer has certainly had tremendous impact.  “The difference between an unjust buyer and a Fair Trade negotiator is that we now have a stronger chance to negotiate and arrive at a fair price.  We sit with Todd and there is transparency, responsibility, and justice,” Pedro told us.  One of the most important things we have been able to do is to rearrange our financing with them in such a way as to help the co-op pay back it’s bank debt in a more timely fashion.

Todd Caspersen, Equal Exchange Purchasing Director and Las Colinas Board Members

Through a grant from Catholic Relief Services, Las Colinas was  able to purchase or renovate parts of their processing equipment.  Today, they have a state of the art “ecological” mill which recycles wastewater used during processing back into the plant, helping both to conserve water and protect the soil and groundwater supply from contaminants.  Instead of “dumping” the waste water into standing pools, they now use those pools, filled with recycled, clean water  as fish farms.  We saw six or seven which will soon be ready for harvest.  The fish will help augment the families’ diets and will provide them with extra income. “Before we installed the new ecological mill, we were living with these smelly pools of water. It was pretty disagreeable and attracted many mosquitos.  Now, our families will be eating lots of tilapia,” Pedro Ascensio told us as he showed us around.

Las Colinas is situated on the border of one of El Salvador’s last remaining forests, the National Park, El Imposible.  Their land also contains a natural spring that provides water to thousands of people in the entire municipality of Tacuba.  For this reason, the farming practices of the co-op serves a very critical role in protecting and preserving the area’s important natural resources.  Seven or eight years ago, they undertook the rigorous process of transitioning all of their coffee to organic production and today all of their coffee is certified organic.  It is also grown under heavy forested canopy.  A new program involves the planting of 60,000 new coffee trees each year throughout the farm.If you take into account that the country of El Salvador is one of the most deforested countries in the western hemisphere, you can better appreciate the importance of Las Colinas in this respect.

At the end of our visit, I asked Remberto what the biggest difference has been in his life since the co-op was formed.  “Years ago when this was one plantation with one boss, there was much exploitation.  Life was really hard and there was no hope of fair compensation.  Now, by being a co-op, if there are any gains, those gains are shared by all of us.”

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Occupy Fair Trade!

Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy the Food System.

Last week Sienna Chrisman posted a great piece on the Civil Eats blog describing recent happenings in the food system:  food speculation driving up food costs, land grabs, and the consolidation of the food industry throughout the entire food chain. In her piece, “Why the Food Movement Should Occupy Wall Street,” Chrisman makes an argument that the food justice movement should link up to the Occupy Wall Street movement because both struggles beg the question, “how do we bring about fundamental change?”

“All along the food chain, people are squeezed by powerful corporations: Walmart demands low prices from its suppliers, so the suppliers cut wages for workers in the factories and fields; most food stores rely on a single national buyer, so it is almost impossible for small producers to get products onto the shelves; supermarket chains buy out the competition and then close the only store in a low-income neighborhood.”

A week later, the Huffington Post published an article by Eric Holt Gimenez, Executive Director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, entitled, “Occupy the Food Movement!” arguing that it is time for those of us concerned about delivering the supply of healthy food to get more political and fight for needed policy changes that keep power in the hands of agribusiness.

Both articles highlight the need for structural change, not just market solutions.  Ultimately both are needed.  We need folks on the ground, in the trenches, working to build models for alternative supply chains that emphasize small farmer, local, and co-operative business structures.  We also need food justice activists who are organizing to change policies, such as the U.S. Farm Bill and unfair Free Trade bills such as the ones with Colombia, Panama, and Korea, that unfortunately were just approved by Congress.

The Fair Trade system was created as a movement that works on the ground, with farmer organizations, progressive, independent food stores, consumer co-operatives, and Alternative Trade Organizations, to create a new model.  Not only was the idea to provide healthy food through an independent supply chain, but the theory was that once organized, farmer organizations would also be better able to effect broader economic and political changes in their communities.  Through practical, concrete actions, we built a system rooted in good business practices, as well as broader economic development and social justice strategies.

The key in all of this is transformation.  Let’s not lose sight of our original vision.  Occupy Fair Trade.

Cartoon by John Klossner.  Copywrite 2011

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