The Toughest Fair Trade Nut to Crack

John Bowes

September 1, 2011


Sales of fair trade products in the United States have been booming.  According to the Fair Trade Labelling Organizations International  (FLO), they amounted to $1.2 billion last year – quadruple the figure in 2004. This is a truly staggering rate of growth.

Fair trade practices grew out of the concerns of a small number of activists for poverty-stricken farmers in the global south. These pioneers sought to assure that producers would be given better market access and fair prices for their goods. As important and well-intentioned as these people were, a fundamental sea change was required for their products to have a material impact on the marketplace.

Max Havelaar, a Dutch-Christian development agency, introduced the first fair trade label. They paid producers a fair price for their crops and issued independent certification allowing the goods to be sold to supermarkets for the first time. This idea was replicated across Europe and North America, and its success led to the establishment of FLO in 1997. In the U.S., Transfair is the formal labelling authority and it has embarked on a drive to bring fair trade benefits to millions in the developing world. Today, the United Kingdom is the only nation on Earth with a bigger market than the U.S. for fair trade products.

But let’s offer a little perspective. The United States has a population in excess of 300 million people. It is one of the biggest nations in the world. You don’t need a post grad in math to recognize that its per capita consumption of fair trade products is less than a fifth of that in the U.K. — a country with just 62 million people. Of all the nations in the northern hemisphere recorded by FLO, only Italy, Spain, Estonia and the Czech Republic have a lower rate of fair trade per capita consumption than the U.S.

Why is Fair Trade doing so badly in America?

It has been argued that the culture’s self-centered political and emotional isolationism is the culprit, banded together with its commitment to a capitalist market economy, one which drives the pursuit of personal wealth at the expense of an empathetic response to global economic and social problems.

This kind of thinking is given superficial credence by Americans’ apparent reluctance to visit different places and experience different cultures. Almost 50 million Brits have passports; about 83 percent of the population. So we are astonished to read that only 21 percent  of U.S. citizens possess a passport. Does this lack of exposure to foreign peoples lend itself to a culture of isolationism?

Perhaps, but any contention that Americans lack heart is belied by their record on charitable donations; giving represents about 1.7 percent of gross domestic product; about twice the level of Canada and the U.K.

Perhaps the fundamental problem is leadership. In the U.K., the Fairtrade Foundation provides determined and focused leadership for the whole fair trade sector. In the U.S., by contrast, Transfair appears to be at almost constant loggerheads with the alternative trading organizations who were the original pioneers of the movement.

The internal debate is split into the transformer view, associated with the alternative trading organizations, and the reformer view, associated with Transfair. The former group wants to transform the trading system by creating holistic partnerships linking the small farmer to the consumer. The reformers have a more incremental approach and seek to operate within established trading frameworks; they have happily concluded deals with multinational companies such as Starbucks and Dole, entities which many in the fair trade movement associate with just the abuses their current efforts are designed to address.

These concerns are shared by many in the U.K. When Nestle, the bette noir of the U.K. ethical movement, incorporated the Fairtrade mark on its Partners Blend coffee, plenty of dissenting voices saw it as a grotesque act of cynicism. But in the U.K. the emphasis has been on partnership and co-operation. As a result the movement has been able to offer a consistent and coordinated message. The Fairtrade mark is now almost ubiquitous, and recognized by more than 70 percent of British adults. Retail sales have passed the 1-billion pound ($1.6 billion) mark.

Now it’s time for the U.S. to flex its fair trade muscle. Success in the largest consumer market on Earth is essential to change inequitable global trading practices. Fair trade has come a long way in a relatively short period, but its progress is still embryonic. Of all of the challenges it faces going forward, the United States is the toughest nut to crack.

John Bowes is editor of the recently released book The Fair Trade Revolution and chairman of Twin, a pioneering producer-owned membership organization dedicated to developing fair trade supply chains for coffee, nuts, cocoa, and sugar. He previously worked for the Co-operative Group, one of the top five U.K. retailers, where he was responsible for many of their ground-breaking initiatives on fair trade.

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