Last month as COVID-19 spread around the globe, we began a series of blog posts in conversation with leaders of fair trade farmer organizations around the globe. I have returned to these “Field Notes” over the past weeks, drawing inspiration both for our education and advocacy work—and personally. Each week as this crisis unfolds, there is a new line that stands out to me. This week, as we approach World Fair Trade Day and day 50 of our governor’s stay-at-home order, it is the words of Santiago Paz of Co-op Norandino in Peru: “We all need to stay calm and unified and work together. This crisis just reveals what has been obvious for too long. On the other side of this crisis, we will need to take a hard look at our lives and habits: the way we live, work, consume—many things will need to change.”
As we approach World Fair Trade Day in the middle of a global pandemic, these words help shape my thoughts both on what needs to change, and how the principles at the heart of the fair trade movement can guide those changes.
“Stay Calm and Unified and Work Together”
This theme of working together runs through the conversations we have published. Alex Flores of Aprainores co-op in El Salvador reflects on the difficulties the cashew farmers he works with face, yet notes that, “This shows again, the importance of being a cooperative.” The challenges of unorganized farmers and those without fair trade relationships are even greater as long-term buyers come through with contracts, and with flexibility and understanding for their fair trade partners.
The cooperative is also a strength in itself, as staff reach out to members and connect, “to assure them that we can do this; and to encourage everyone to have patience. That’s how we’ll get through to the other side,” assures Flores. Minimum prices help. Fair trade premium funds are being used for vital health supplies and education in the COVID-19 crisis. Yet one of the greatest values of fair trade is the human infrastructure that it creates: the organizations that deliver those supplies and the human connections that sustain them.
The Best Worker Protection: A Voice in the Workplace
Last week, in my community and all across the U.S., workers organized strikes at Amazon, FedEx, Instacart, Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods. They called for better protective equipment, sick leave, and other protections as they face the reality of having been deemed essential yet treated as expendable—even as those at the top of their companies earn billions. The May Day strikes and sick-outs were dramatic, earning press coverage, and hopefully bringing much-needed changes to the issues workers raise. Yet behind the dramatic events themselves, there is a quieter story. The story of everyday organizing, of coming together to recognize common needs. The work of having conversations and building trust. While most of these workers are not members of a traditional union, their unity and solidarity represent a key value of the organized labor movement—and their greatest strength.
Throughout this pandemic, grocery stores have been modifying their operations to be safer for people who work and shop there. My local worker-owned food co-op was one of the first to adopt some of the strongest safety measures. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Costco with its largely union workforce has been the first of the big national grocers to require all customers to wear masks in their stores. For years, we have been highlighting how important it is for the farmers and workers who are the intended beneficiaries to be included in the development of fair trade standards. Now it’s as clear as the Plexiglas screen at the checkout station: the best-protected workers are those who have a voice in the workplace.
Collaboration over Competition, People over Profit
The scramble to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the priorities of our economy: profits at just about any cost. We see it as fast fashion brands walk away from contracts with factories in Bangladesh, India, and Southeast Asia. Brands chose to manufacture in those locations to cut costs and pay skilled garment workers low wages. Then, as lockdowns closed stores in the U.S., UK, and Europe, too many brands took advantage of the long, opaque supply chains that they have built to distance themselves still further from the people who make their clothes, refusing to pay for orders in progress or even those already completed. The result: dire warnings that hunger may hit already impoverished workers even harder than the pandemic.
Fair trade artisan groups are not immune from the pandemic. Indeed, the artisans making apparel, accessories, jewelry, and other items often deemed non-essential are struggling. Yet, as Erinch Sahan of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) points out, even as resources are scarce, many of these groups are pivoting to make other essential goods—and to collaborate. In his conversation with Fair World Project’s Political Director, Ryan Zinn, Sahan points out that that sort of collaboration is not just a fluke. It is at the heart of how so many fair trade organizations operate every day.
Fair trade organizations make clear that it is possible to put people, their lives and livelihoods, before shareholder profits. Their coordinated efforts and their recognition that we are stronger together are not just an inspiration for surviving this pandemic—they are a model for the economy that we must rebuild afterward.
World Fair Trade Day 2020: Stronger Together
This World Fair Trade Day looks different from so many others that we have celebrated. That future in which all trade is fair has never felt more urgent. The threat of corporate consolidation, that we come through this pandemic with fewer small businesses and more dependence on Amazon and a few other giant monopolies, is real. So too is the call to support those who you want to see survive: mission-driven companies like Equal Exchange, one of the fair trade coffee companies helping drive demand for Santiago Paz’s Norandino co-op, or Maggie’s Organics, working with their suppliers and launching new fair trade outfits to keep workers employed. Or Tribe Alive who, even in this difficult time for ethical fashion companies, is partnering with Grow Ahead to support community-led reforestation. Companies like Dr. Bronner’s who, instead of cutting corners in the pandemic, is taking the next step and committing to Regenerative Organic Certification for their coconut oil—going all in for people and the planet.
Yet, as so many have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet, the push for individual purchases alone rings a bit hollow. If anything, COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of large-scale action and the need for a coordinated response. So far, the U.S. government alone has spent upwards of $2 trillion dollars on coronavirus relief, and more is to come. This World Fair Trade Day, let us commit to holding our leaders accountable for prioritizing fair trade values, for supporting small-scale farmers and workers in all that spending (click here for one quick action to support). COVID-19 has laid bare the ways in which the status quo was already a disaster for too many people. There is another way—to recognize that solidarity is essential to our survival. We are truly stronger together.
Cooperativa Norandino’s coffee, along with that from many other small-scale farmer organizations, is available from many of the roasters listed on our Mission-Driven Brands page. While demand at supermarkets is up, many coffee companies are seeing demand drop as coffee shops and universities close—now is a great time to support your local fair trade roaster.