A New Look at the History and Trajectory of Fair Trade
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Fair Trade Farmers

“In the early 1980s, as the Reagan administration aggressively funded an imperialist war in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas reached out internationally for demonstrations of solidarity.” Ian Hussey and Joe Curnow begin their article Fair Trade: From Solidarity to the Standardization of Neocolonial Relations, recently published in Darkmatter this way. They go on to elaborate on the history of fair trade, rooted in solidarity and anti-imperialism, using the example of early traders, citizens, and faith communities who supported the struggle of the Sandinistas in the 80s, in many ways, including finding ways to bring coffee to northern markets despite an embargo.

It is an inspiring and compelling story of fair trade. But the story soon turns dark.

Enter Fair Trade Certification

With the entry of certification to the picture, the focus shifted more to business needs and consumer expectations and became less about solidarity with farmers. “So retailing giants such as Starbucks and Wal-Mart can quash their Northern employees’ union organizing efforts and commit to selling a small percentage of their products as fair trade certified, and certifiers such as FTI and FTUSA will gladly work with them and even brag about the ‘sustainability’ efforts of these corporations.”

Northern companies who use the certification do not equally share the burden of compliance imposed by the certification schemes, particularly Fairtrade International, the focus of the certification. In coffee, for example, roasting, shipping, and packaging can have a big environmental impact, but roasters are not subject to scrutiny of environmental practices, while producers must comply with a host of environmental regulations.

The authors explain: “While limiting pesticide use is important for farmers, farm workers, and those living downstream, the Southern small farmers’ behaviours that are regulated do not alone have the capacity to create the fundamental changes necessary to prevent large-scale ecological disasters. Over a million certified farmers and farm workers taking these steps is significant in terms of environmental impact, but it pales in comparison to the environmental destruction of even one major Northern retailer whose behaviours are outside the scope of the certification process. Yet, Keurig Green Mountain, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, NestlĂ©, and other corporations benefit from the greenwashing of their brands on the backs of Southern small farmers.”

An Alternative Emerges

Producers have largely been left out of governance and decision making for the certification programs, which has led to some of the reproduction of colonial dynamics and imbalances between requirements among supply chain participants. Producers have successfully lobbied for more ownership and governing representation in the Fairtrade International system, but producer groups themselves have not had a unified vision of fair trade, complicating the journey to move fair trade certification closer to the solidarity movement it once was. As an example, early conflict emerged between the producer groups of Latin America and Asia when large-scale plantations were let into the system. Producers in Latin America opposed this direction, while producers in the Asian network included representatives of Indian tea plantations and supported their inclusion in the model.

In recent years, an alternative certification has emerged in the Small Producer Symbol. The Small Producer Symbol is owned and governed by small-scale producers themselves. The label has more flexibility for producers built into the system and more stringent requirements for brands and traders. Because of this ownership structure, the authors are cautiously optimistic that it may be an option more closely reflective of the original solidarity movement that emerged in the 1980s. However, they caution that, as SPP must respond to needs of businesses and desires of consumers for assurance, “There is a risk the SPP will come to reproduce the same problematic logic characteristic of previous fair trade institutionalization processes.” The authors conclude with the observation that “Those engaged in the SPP hope for something better and ultimately trust that small farmers making decisions for themselves are the only ones capable of visioning and creating the future they desire and deserve.”

The article is a critical reminder of the vision and evolution of fair trade, important critique of the limits of certification, and an inspiration that as the movement continues to evolve, we can look for the most hopeful alternatives to support. The full article is available on the Darkmatter website.

Posted on: April 11th 2016

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