Our Co-op s Journey to Domestic Fair Trade Certification

Aug 23, 2010

About seven years ago, our co-op was confronted with the reality that organic grains were becoming commodified. Cheap organic imports were undercutting domestic relationships built over many years. Rumors abounded of organic fraud relating to these imports, but investigation and enforcement during the Bush years were lacking. The stark reality was that an industry founded by mission-based pioneers and ethical retailers was being muscled or bought out by profit-driven corporations and conventional food retail chains, for whom a piece of paper (organic certificate) often superseded a long-term relationship. This was a large problem for our co-op, as the brunt of this consolidation is usually born by farmers in the form of lower prices.


However, there was a huge disconnect. The core organic consumer, whose support built the organic industry, was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the change in the industry and the offerings provided by corporate organics. Whereas organics once meant raw materials from domestic family farms, it now may mean, for example, raw materials from Chinese government-controlled farms*. Whereas it once was implicit that organics meant fair wages and dignified working conditions for farm workers on family farms, it now could mean exploitative working conditions on large plantations, similar to what is found in conventional agriculture.

We felt, as a farmer-owned co-operative that paid good prices to our members who in turn paid fair wages to their farm workers, that we needed to differentiate our organic grains from mass-imported organic grains. To do this, we decided to become certified to fair trade standards. The only problem was that there were no fair trade standards for domestically grown crops, and there was no domestic fair trade seal or market identifier.


There was the added issue that additional ethical and environmental standards were being demanded by core organic consumers, such as sustainable packaging, animal welfare and emissions standards. But this would involve multiple seals on packaging, and label fatigue could set in. To solve this problem, could we not put these additional ethical and environmental standards under one seal In 2003, our co-op set out with our partners to develop a supply chain that was not only certified organic but also certified fair trade and designed to incorporate additional standards as they came about. Thus, the fairDeal supply chain non-profit was born, to offer one seal for multiple standards, with the initial requirements for membership being both certified organic and certified fair trade. We still had a problem, though, as the fairDeal program needed a domestic fair trade standard to comply with.


As it happened, we were not the only group who understood this disconnect. Others were determined to organize for the integrity of organics and the advancement of domestic fair trade. So, in December of 2004, a meeting was called between Organic Valley Co-op, Equal Exchange, the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) and Farmer Direct Co-operative. This meeting led to the founding of the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA), an organization that has blossomed to over thirty members with representation from each part of the supply chain, from farmers and farm workers to retailers and food manufacturers (see http://www.dftassociation.org). And with it, the fairDeal program found its domestic fair trade standard in the AJP.


The AJP, a collaboration between organic farmers, farm workers and NGOs, came together in 1999. They recognized that organic certification did not address the people, farmers or farm workers who make organic agriculture a real alternative to conventional agribusiness. This represented a significant omission, since historically progress towards social justice has been one of the basic principles of organic agriculture (see http://www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org).


For us, it was also significant that the AJP standard was developed by the very people it was meant to protect – farmers and farm workers. The AJP was a genuine grassroots effort to improve the lives of those working in agriculture.

Starting in the Summer of 2006, fairDeal undertook to become the first organization in North America to be certified to domestic fair trade standards. The process was enlightening, as although our farmers had excellent informal relationships with their workers, the AJP standard required that these relationships become formalized through written contracts and policies. Additionally, the integrity of the audit and standard was excellent, with each farm worker being interviewed separately from the group, so that any concern or violation could be discussed in private with the auditor. After four years and three inspections, Farmer Direct Co-op received our AJP social justice certification.


We were almost on our way, but there was a catch. Our members, some of them organic farming since the 1970s (even before certification), had learned hard lessons from their organic experience. How are we going to maintain our differentiation when publicly-traded companies and other profit-first enterprises co-opt domestic fair trade once a market had been developed With the incursion of Nestlé into fair trade chocolate, we knew that fair trade, domestic or otherwise, was now on the corporate radar. Once co-opted, would domesti

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