Reclaiming Fair Trade – A Reflection

Presenting our first guest blog by Nora Burkey, who Social Business Network has the honor of hosting for her Master’s research in Sustainable Development: 

While fair trade enthusiasts are quickly dropping their affiliations with certifying bodies, explaining it is because they are still committed to original standards whereas new members are not, the confused reader, inundated with information about poor farmers just getting poorer—fair trade or not—might wonder why fair trade ought to be defended at all.  Remember that income accounting does not create the whole picture.  Fair trade has contributed to increased access to credit at lower interest rates, more childhood education, a greater degree of food-security, and more.  Fair trade premiums to cooperatives also benefit farming communities as a whole, such as greater access to healthcare for the whole village.  But fair trade wasn’t just about poverty, it was about revolution, and its successes and failures ought to be looked at in that light.

Fair Trade offered the cooperative structure as a solution to privately-owned farms that have an unfair system of wage labor.  This allows farmers ownership of their land, not just their labor, and provides a democratically governed body to oversee social projects and communicate with buyers without being owned by them, leaving decision-making with the farmer.  So when large coffee plantations can become certified as fair trade, as Fair Trade USA recently decided to allow—breaking off from Fair Trade International in order to do so—what we have is a private system that has nothing to do with what fair trade ever meant to imply, and what fair trade ends up meaning is something like minimum wage with a social premium benefit.  And whereas before 20% of a product had to be fair trade to receive the label, now just a mere 10% is required by Fair Trade USA, so it’s not even minimum wage for all.

Under current standards, to sell fair-trade certified products, only 5% of a company’s sales must be fair trade, and there is no obligation to increase this percentage over time.  Nor are large producers required to slowly become more cooperative in structure by giving each farmer a vote and ownership over their own production.  The presence of large multinationals and large plantations at the table only limits a small farmer’s access to the market and ensures the largest piece of the pie goes to the largest producer or buyer.

The most damaging of all is that the weakening of standards has forced the founders of fair trade out.  No longer do the truly committed want to be associated with the term they created, as to many consumers, it denotes something so tame the only impact it makes is a bad one.  It seems anyone can create their own label these days and certify it independently, allies and enemies alike.  Some have stricter standards and some have weaker, but if consumers are not educated, it is impossible to know which label is which.  And since fair trade depends on consumers rather than the state to ensure it continues to be a part of commerce—it only exists as long as people are willing to buy fair trade products—creating so many labels, and so much confusion, is a lot like playing with fire.

The struggle is whether to reclaim the name that has been co-opted or admit that it’s already been stolen.  In my own life I choose to reclaim it, because I believe it is important that people understand fair trade was and is not a failure, it can only be failed.  I choose not to be someone that fails it, to be someone who fails to support all that fair trade has done.  The commitment still feels pretty radical to me, in all senses of the word.

Nora Burkey is currently a candidate at SIT Graduate Institute for a Master’s in Sustainable Development.  She became involved with Social Business Network in August 2013 after connecting with Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company, a trading partner of ÉTICO.  She currently lives in León, Nicaragua, and plans to continue working with Dean’s Beans and Social Business Network on development projects into 2014.

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