Is Everything Fair Trade Now?

The Fair Trade movement and market has gone through a significant evolution in the last 12 months, sparked in part by FTUSA’s departure the FLO system. While fair trade, as both a movement and market, has existed for decades, the term’s mass adoption can be seen as a victory for fair traders, while leaving some to consider that now may be the time to consider rebranding fair trade.

Googling “fair trade” nets not only the usual suspects (including certifiers, companies and advocates), but fair trade condoms, fair trade porn, fair trade energy, fair surgical tools, fair trade gold and fair trade lingerie.  Like other terms such as  “sustainable” and “local,” has fair trade come to mean everything, and nothing?

The history of the term “Sustainable Development” is telling. Sustainable Development first entered on to the scene in 1987 as part of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations. Sustainable Development was defined by the Brundtland Commission as  “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” At the time, sustainable development was a reflection of years of work by community based advocates, farmers and economists.  Since the Brundtland Commission, everyone has seemingly jumped on the sustainable development bandwagon, from fossil fuel and biotech corporations, diluting and coopting its original intent.

Similarly, fair trade has faced a parallel experience. Should corporate criminals like Dole and Chiquita be able to fair wash their image by sourcing a tiny amount of fair trade bananas? The race to certify any means of production as fair trade, whether it is from a small farmer cooperative or mega plantation, has led to conflict and confusion in the marketplace. Is now the time for fair traders to move forward, evolve the term and concept, or is now our time to draw a line in the sand? Farmers, advocates and consumers in the organic movement pushed to go “beyond organic” with the creation of USDA national organic standards ten years ago. Many believed that national standards eroded the original intent of the organic vision, eliminating fair prices, worker health and safety, environmental stewardship, and other values from the USDA definition, leaving some advocates to regard USDA organic as “Grade B” organic. Is it time for “beyond fair trade”?

In an effort to differentiate themselves from other certification systems, and possibly go “beyond fair trade”, small fair trade producers networks, namely the Latin American and Caribbean Coordinator of Fair Trade Small Producers (CLAC), have begun the process of launching their own seal and certifying system, the Small Producers Symbol. While still in its infancy, this effort looks to empower producers directly with a system and standard that better reflects their realities and goals, not those of fly by night importers or ill-informed consumers. What will the future hold for the fair trade movement and market? Please weigh in.

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