Fair trade gold, fish, and condoms, oh my!

Fair trade seems to be growing by leaps and bounds these days. Fair trade gold made headlines in February, just in time for Valentines Day. While Fairtrade gold provides consumers with an alternative to “dirty gold,” the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) standards, as the NGO Earthworks has pointed out, will need more improvement and refining. Namely, questions remain around regulating the use of mercury or cyanide in gold mining, as well as the status of mines in protected areas or conflict zones.

FLO seems intent on forging ahead in new sectors, including certifying small-scale fishing operations, despite concerns regarding the development of new standards, as well as FLO-Cert?s capacity to adequately monitor operations. FLO and TransFair USA have come under fire for both their standards and practices, ranging from TransFair USA?s Fair Trade Garments Pilot Project to TransFair’s bid to rebrand itself as Fair Trade USA. While the ensuing dialogue within the movement has been largely constructive, including an insightful webinar sponsored by the Fair Trade Resource Network, we risk losing consumer confidence in “fair trade” while we work to improve the system. FLO and TransFair are in a bit of a sticky situation. While it is unclear if they currently have the capacity to adequately address the challenging and contentions labor situation in new sectors and complex supply chains, they must respond to calls from producer and consumers for standards for new fair trade sectors.

In some aspects, the fair trade market is falling deeper into disorder, with new products and new self-anointed fair trade programs springing up around every corner. Continuing this trend, “fair trade” is now being applied to virtually anything, with hundreds of ethical, social, and “fair” labels emerging over the course of the last five years. Case in point: fair trade condoms are poised to enter the market in the UK. Though proliferation of fair trade schemes and certifications reflects? greater public awareness, we do risk increased consumer confusion and the risk of “fairwashing.”

Despite the current state of disarray in the world of fair trade, there are positive signs on the horizon for cross-sector collaboration. The Fair World Project (FWP) recently joined certifiers, producers and other NGOs endorsing ?Fair Trade Certifiers and Stakeholder Groups Sign Agreement to Work Toward Collaboration and Accountability in Domestic Fair Trade?.? Meanwhile, Fairtrade International, SAN/Rainforest Alliance & UTZ CERTIFIED pledged to continue their collaboration. Some in the fair trade movement have called for greater government intervention of fair trade labelling and standards. Fair trade is now recognized and regulated under federal law in France. Federal regulation recognition of fair trade in the United States represents both an opportunity and risk, especially given the mixed experience of the USDA National Organic Program.

In the end, this discussion brings us full circle to one of the original tensions of fair trade: shall we continue focusing on improving and expanding the patchwork of sector by sector market standards or will we insist on strengthening public institutions to protect and support farmers, workers and artisans across the board? Or both? Stay tuned.

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