Authentic Fair Trade: Where are we and where are we going?

Rink Dickinson and other Equal Exchange staff discussing current issues in the Fair Trade certification system with representatives of east coast food co-operatives. “Authentic fair trade is critical...

Rink Dickinson and other Equal Exchange staff discussing current issues in the Fair Trade certification system with representatives of east coast food co-operatives.

“Authentic fair trade is critical to the farmers whose livelihoods depend on it. But defining “authentic” fair trade and communicating this distinction to businesses and consumers is a challenge. Equal Exchange is doing an admirable job of clarifying the difference between businesses that engage in authentic fair trade and businesses that are seeking to exploit the fair trade label… I hope that Wild Oats can pass the Equal Exchange message about authentic fair trade on to its members and customers, especially during Fair Trade Month this October.”

Robin Riley, Marketing/Member Services Manager
Wild Oats Market, Williamstown

Some of you may have noticed that the blog has been quite inactive of late.  You might even have been wondering what’s happening with our Authentic Fair Trade Campaign these days.  Are we still asking folks to Stand with Small Farmers and if so, how?  What does the overall landscape look like and what role are Equal Exchange and our partners playing in this new panorama?

The blog lay dormant because I was away on a leave from Equal for a good part of the summer.  Now however, I’ve returned; other folks are back from their August vacations; the roaster is up and running in full force; the phones are ringing to capacity; and fall orders are being packed and shipped at a dizzying pace.  The co-op is bustling.

It’s time now to take stock of where things stand with our Authentic Fair Trade Campaign – and step it up to the next level.

While I was out, my colleagues on the Natural Foods Team kept up a steady beat of public education about Fair Trade, what it is and what it isn’t; where it’s come from and where it may be heading.  They’ve been designing educational materials and toolboxes, and leading workshops, trainings, and discussion groups in food co-ops across the country.  The response has been overwhelmingly supportive.  Click here to read about some of the creative ways our food co-op (and other allies) are educating their members about Authentic Fair Trade.

On-line, over 8200 individuals, 80 food co-operatives, and 700 churches, ATOs, producer groups, and other organizations have signed our statement declaring their support for Authentic Fair Trade.  These individuals understand that Authentic Fair Trade is a change-based approach which supports small farmer organizations, consumer education and empowerment, the highest standards and ethics, and democratic structures and decision-making processes.  They have committed to continue educating their friends, neighbors, colleagues, and customers about Authentic Fair Trade; building democracy in the Fair Trade system;  and supporting small farmers by purchasing Authentic Fair Trade products.

As part of the campaign, Equal Exchange also placed an ad in the Burlington Free Press challenging Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to do “the right thing” and disassociate themselves from Fair Trade USA, the renegade certifying agency that has unilaterally appropriated the name Fair Trade, left the international system (with a $1 million debt), lowered standards, and opened up the Fair Trade system to coffee and cacao plantations.  All of this was done despite the persistent and vocal opposition of the Fair Trade farmer co-ops, activists, and Alternative Trade Organizations whose hard work over more than 25 years helped build this system.

The media has been following the story.  Earlier pieces covering the controversy appeared in The New York Times, Mother JonesNPR and elsewhere.  In September, Scott Sherman of the Nation published, “The Brawl over Fair Trade,” in which he reflects on the dangers of the corporatization of Fair Trade under Fair Trade USA’s regime.  Days later, the New Internationalist published another excellent piece on their blog entitled, “Is It Curtains for Fair Trade?”

In the meantime, what’s happening with the certifiers?  The store shelves in the U.S. will soon carry a number of competing Fair Trade seals.  Having lost its U.S. arm, FairTrade International is now opening its own office in the U.S. and hopes to capture market share in the U.S. that has been pretty much dominated by Transfair/FairTrade USA for the last 15 years or so.  FTI spent a good part of the past year seeking input from a variety of stakeholders to help them define the purpose, goals, governance structure, and activities of a new FTI affiliate in the U.S.  Companies such as Divine Chocolate, Wholesome Sweeteners, Green and Blacks, and dozens of others will soon be using the FTI logo on their products sold in the United States.   Interestingly, the Latin America and Caribbean Network of Small Fair Trade Producers (CLAC) is supporting the creation of an FTI affiliate in the U.S.  (Producers as a whole have recently won a long struggle within the FTI structure which gained them 50% representation in FTI’s General Assembly)

Fundeppo, the first (and only) Fair Trade certification system created by small farmer organizations is also trying to launch their small farmer symbol in the marketplace.  Equal Exchange has registered with Fundeppo and strongly supports their initiative.  Consumers should start seeing Equal Exchange products carrying the Small Producer Symbol by late autumn.   Other roasters will also be joining us in this new and growing movement, which in one sense, represents the culmination of a long, but steady rise of small farmer empowerment through Fair Trade.

Finally, what of Transfair/Fair Trade USA?  The organization unabashedly continues to move forward with their plans, seemingly unaffected by the adverse media attention and public outcries against them from many in the Fair Trade movement – both north and south.  Although it is too early to have completed objective impact studies, Transfair continues to promote the success of their “pilot projects” with plantations and unorganized farmers in their Fair Trade for All initiative.  However, consumers and Fair Trade advocates have recently won a small, but very significant battle against the certifier’s plans to lower standards.  The National Advertising Review Board has just declared that Transfair/Fair Trade USA require users of its “Fair Trade Certified” seal on body care and cosmetic products to further inform consumers of the percentage of fair trade ingredients in a product on the certifier’s label.  This was a huge win for the movement.

Finally, this brings us to the work of the North America Fair Trade Stakeholders Council.  A group of fifty of us met in May for a 3-day summit to share opinions and strategies for rebuilding the Fair Trade movement in the United States.  Two working groups have been formed, one to focus on Domestic Fair Trade and the other on International Fair Trade.  As strategies and recommendations emerge from this body, now newly renamed the Fair and Alternative Trade Alliance, we will keep you posted.

That pretty much brings us up to date.  The fall promises to be a busy one; stay tuned for next actions and how you can get/stay involved!

Kayla Sanchez Preparing for Strolling with the Heifers in Brattleboro, VT

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