Small-Scale Farmers Issue Urgent Call to Save Fair Trade

Smallholders Photo Credit: Morgana Wingard
Photo: “Smallholders” by Morgana Wingard

“Fair trade labels were initially launched on the market as a way to promote the products of democratically-operating organizations of small producers in the South more directly to consumers around the world.”

This is just one of the key points in a recent statement laid out by the Small Producers’ Symbol (SPP), drafted and affirmed by its small-scale producer members at their 2017 General Assembly.

There is no doubt fair trade has grown and evolved over the last several decades. As described in the statement, millions of people – farmers, their families, and their communities – in farming areas throughout the Global South have benefited from fair trade.

Yet this statement, covering the history, origin, principles, and future of fair trade, ends with an urgent call to action to save fair trade.

Alternative Markets

The SPP declaration goes on to state that the intent of fair trade is to “establish an alternative market that would operate differently and not incorporate the actors, structures, and practices of conventional markets.”

Dozens of coffee roasters and brands making food, apparel, and body care products who work with small-scale producers have proven that it is possible to produce high-quality products while ensuring dignified lives throughout the supply chain. The vision of the fair trade movement has always been systems of trade and agricultural production that lead to a healthier and more just economy. These models should become the foundation for moving towards this vision.

Instead, so much of fair trade has become what could more accurately be called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), that is conventional actors attempting to clean up supply chains by eliminating worst forms of exploitation.

To be clear, we need more CSR initiatives and we need these companies to be held accountable to their CSR commitments. Many farmers and workers around the globe are subject to hazardous working conditions, denied rights, and paid poverty wages. Most major corporations have codes of conduct or commitments to social responsibility, but if these codes and commitments are on paper only and not enforceable, they become a PR tool rather than a tool to end exploitation in supply chains.

Even when codes of conduct are enforced and companies held accountable to them, the threat to fair trade comes when the elimination of the worst supply chain abuses (CSR), is confused with the shift of power to the most marginalized in the supply chain (fair trade).  This confusion undermines the work of small-scale producers and their organizations to transform their local economies and the supply chains within which they work.

Making improvements to existing markets is good, but it is not the same as creating new markets and transforming systems. Transforming systems requires shifting power balances and business models to ensure farmers and workers have living wages, sustainable prices, and are empowered to improve their own conditions. This requires small-scale farmers to be leading the transformation.  Companies making small tweaks to make prices, pay, and conditions for farmers and workers in the supply chain a little less bad while still holding all the power is not good enough.

A Movement of Democracy

One of the key differences between fair trade and CSR is that fair trade is based on democracy. In fair trade, SPP’s declaration reminds us, decision-making for all participants should be democratic. Today not all participants operate democratically. It is clear at the brand level that large corporate actors like Nestle, Dole, and Cadbury/Mondelez are not operating democratically. It may be less obvious but is equally true that not all producers operate democratically either, as many fair trade labeling schemes have welcomed large plantations on which the owners dictate rules and smaller individual producers who are not organized in order to collectively address abuses and power imbalances in the supply chain.

Democracy is a vital core to the movement because it is the way that all participants have a voice. It ensures that fair trade is not a charity model, but is rather one of self-determination in which no participant has the power to exploit other participants.

Democracy is a key principle that complements the other principles and values of fair trade like strong relationships that build trust, transparency, and sustainable prices. Combined, these principles provide an alternative structure to conventional supply chains.

Focus on Small-Scale Producers

Small-scale producers are incredibly productive, producing a diversity of crops (important for the environment, human health, and communities) with good yields. They produce a majority of the world’s calories on about a quarter of the world’s agricultural land. They are a vital part of our food system and the economy.

Yet small-scale producers face many threats including effects of climate change, unsustainably low prices, and threats to land itself, often by government and corporate investors who grab up land from powerless smallholders. Small-scale producers lack access to credit, capital, technical assistance, and global markets.

Fair trade brings small-scale producers together through democratic farmer organizations and allows them to impact communities, build infrastructure, capture value in supply chains, access credit and global markets collectively, and advocate for policies and services that benefit them, all in ways that would be more difficult as an individual small-scale producer. This focus on the vital role of small-scale producers has been lost, along with the focus on democratic organizations, in the CSR version of “fair trade.”

An Urgent Call

SPP is an alliance of democratic small-scale producer organizations and allied brands and organizations. Many of these producer groups and brands were fair trade pioneers who continue to lead the growth of the movement. But they have also watched competing visions of fair trade vie for recognition and they feel we are at a tipping point.

“We are making an urgent call for the entire fair trade movement to declare that the cannibalization of fair trade by major commercial and productive corporations will not be permitted, since they reproduce the traditional schemes of exploitation, abuse, and concentration, of power and wealth, while taking over a movement and a market that were created precisely to fight against such an economic model.”

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