Trying (but Failing) to Understand Arguments in Support of Fair Trade USA

I read Michael Sheridan’s reflections about the recent article in The Nation, “The Brawl over Fair Trade Coffee,”but had too many comments to respond on the CRS Coffeelands...

I read Michael Sheridan’s reflections about the recent article in The Nation, “The Brawl over Fair Trade Coffee,”but had too many comments to respond on the CRS Coffeelands blog that he hosts.  I have a great deal of respect for Michael and always appreciate his thoughtful, intelligent approach and his commitment to on-the-ground development work with farmers.  However, while I applaud Michael’s attempts to be objective, I was left puzzled by some of the logic behind his critique of The Nation article and his apparent support for the Fair Trade For All initiative.

Michael’s biggest critique of The Nation article seems to be two-fold:  1) while there is near unanimous agreement that “the process by which FT4All came to be violated core Fair Trade values of transparency and dialogue” and the fact that the initiative includes elements opposed by most of the Fair Trade community, it is somehow unfair to criticize the initiative until we see the results; and 2) those who criticize “corporate” Fair Trade are not recognizing the benefits it has generated for smallholder farmers.

I tried to read Michael’s comments with an open mind, but I’m afraid that I’m still plagued by two critical issues which I just can’t overlook. They are as follows:

1.  Is it possible to “empower” farmers with one hand while stripping away their power with the other?  In a system whose very foundation and philosophy was built upon the principles of strong and equitable relationships, democratic processes, deep integrity and trust, can an organization take unilateral actions which fly in the face of all those principles and still expect their initiative’s results will be judged impartially?  Is it even possible to evaluate results while ignoring process when the whole basis of the Fair Trade system is to create a new way of conducting trade and doing business which most of all includes respect and integrity?

In his response to Michael Sheridan’s comments, Jonathan Rosenthal makes this point beautifully.  He compares Fair Trade USA’s actions to a political candidate who proposes “…to bring direct financial prosperity to women or people of African heritage along with rescinding their voting rights…” saying, “…clearly, we would focus on the loss of rights, not on the programs for financial prosperity.”  I couldn’t agree more with Jonathan.

The first thing students learn in community development, planning, human services, organizing, and other fields is that you should never design or carry out an initiative, even with the best of intentions, for others, or better yet, assume which initiatives will best help others.  It is crucial to have the participation of those who will be affected from the outset.  Their voices and votes are critical to the project’s success and to how it will ultimately be received, assessed and judged. Yet, in taking the name Fair Trade with him and then creating a new initiative with elements that are strongly opposed by the Fair Trade community, claiming that what he is doing is best for small farmers, Paul Rice is doing just this.

Historically, even brilliantly conceived projects repeatedly fail because one person thinks he knows best. Look at the World Bank, the Agency for International Development and many other development projects conceived of by well-intentioned people who want to help the poor.  Ten years ago in Boston, small farmer organizations, Alternative Trade Organizations (ATOs), and other Fair Trade activists were informed by Paul Rice about his vision to include coffee plantations in the system.  Then, and for the next 10 years, these people who built the Fair Trade system have repeatedly and emphatically said no to his plan. Last year he decided to do so anyway.  He did not consult when he left the international Fair Trade system to go it alone, took the name Fair Trade with him, lowered standards, included plantations and individual farmers in his new certification scheme.  Unlike the certification system he walked away from which has 50% producer representation in its governance structure, Fair Trade USA has none.

How many times do we need to stand by and watch history repeat itself and not call it for what it is?

2.  What do Fair Traders have against corporations?  Are we just being dogmatic, or is corporate Fair Trade an oxymoron?

I understand the argument of those who believe that corporations should not be demonized simply for the sake of demonizing them.  We all tire of unfounded dogmatism.  So what really is the concern about market-driven Fair Trade?  There is no question that corporations are adding volume into the Fair Trade marketplace, as Michael points out.  To the extent that more volume equals more income (and more premiums), this is good for farmers.  To the extent that more volume increases the visibility of Fair Trade for consumers, this is also a good thing.  To my knowledge, no one has ever denied this fact.

The issue however, isn’t one of volume alone.  The critical question is:  what kind of system are we building and with what kind of long-term impact?  We’re not simply talking about a higher price, or a social premium that will help those farmers who receive it.  We’re talking about long-term structural change.  The beauty of Fair Trade is that it has a deep, far-reaching, almost quixotic mission.  Consumers were supposed to be informed, educated, and engaged so that they better understand the complexities of our food and trade systems and see how they and their actions form part of an interconnected web.  In Fair Trade USA’s system, they need only “look for the seal”.  They aren’t capable of reaching deeper and aren’t asked to even try.  Pretty photos of happy farmers take the place of hard truths.  Buy this pound of coffee and help a child go to school.  No deeper education or analysis is necessary.

Granted this kind of education and engagement is difficult, time consuming, and resource heavy.  Consumers don’t have the time to be inquisitive and organizations don’t know how to do this work well.  Quite honestly, none of us do.  But name the corporations that are trying to do this work.  Does Dole want consumers to know the history of banana companies in Latin America?  Does Nestle want you to know where chocolate originates and who is harvesting their cacao pods?  Only the ATOs and Fair Trade organizations take on this work.  Do we place a value on these efforts?  If we do, forcing ATOs to compete with corporations will surely jeopardize the existence of the ATOs in the long-run; especially since the ATOs are 100% Fair Trade and can’t subsidize their purchases (or marketing budgets) with the large percent of “unFair Trade” conducted by the same corporation.

Likewise, Fair Trade was established to help small farmer organizations access markets and compete in those markets by leveling an unfair playing ground.  It was created because corporations (and large plantations) already have all the market advantages.  Michael Sheridan also agrees that, “…the advent of Fair Trade estate coffee has the potential to undermine the market position of cooperatives.”  How then can we stand by while Transfair takes the name “Fair Trade USA” and creates an initiative which would jeopardize the ability of organized small farmers – who have finally achieved a measure of economic and political power – to compete once again with those that have every market advantage?  Try as hard as I do, I just can’t fathom the logic.

In The Nation article Paul Rice is quoted as saying, “everyone is innovating. Look at Apple… It baffles me that somehow innovation in our movement is unacceptable.”

There is so much need for innovation within the Fair Trade system as it now stands. According to 2010 data, only one-third of the current small farmer organizations’ coffee sold at Fair Trade prices.  Many farmers still live in poverty.  Their children struggle to get a good education.  Decent health care is still lacking. Bank credit, technical assistance, education and training are difficult, sometimes impossible to attain.  All too frequently hurricanes and other weather-related disasters put farmers, their families and communities at risk, and wipe out their livelihoods.  There is no question that the deck is still stacked against small farmer organizations.

We also need innovation in our work with consumers.  We have a commitment to educate consumers, to engage them in the mission of Fair Trade, to connect them in an authentic manner to those who grow their food.  We are not doing a great job.  Most consumers don’t know what Fair Trade is and the campaign, “look for the seal” did not encourage them to go deeper.  How are we innovating to engage consumers to help us build a more fair food system?

After all, if we can’t empower farmers and consumers, innovate and excel in best practices within the existing Fair Trade system, why should anyone believe that it can and should be done in yet another Fair Trade system (coincidentally, also called Fair Trade)?  Like the story of the tortoise and the hare, it may be a slower, less glamorous path to work with small farmer co-ops and consumers, but ultimately I believe that is the work that will result in real impact.

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