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91. The future of Fair Trade

I have published some critiques of Fair Trade Certification here in recent weeks, and have gotten some thoughtful and even-minded pushback about it both online and off.  I feel compelled, as they say in the U.S. Congress, to “revise and extend my remarks” about Fair Trade.  In so doing, I will turn for help to one of the great parliamentarians of the 20th century, and a small group of allies working to shape Fair Trade in the 21st.

Fair Trade Certification.

The truth is that Fair Trade Certification has brought benefits to the farmers we accompany overseas.  And we continue to support the efforts of smallholder farmers to certify their organizations and coffee as Fair Trade because we believe it can continue to generate important developmental impacts on the ground.  We continue to seek opportunities to engage with FLO, and will be doing so later this month in El Salvador.  The system has gotten more complicated, however, as it has grown in popularity and volume — a process that has caused some growing pains and makes our relationship with the certification system complex.

“Fully committed” Fair Trade.

There is less complexity, however, about our working relationships in the coffeelands with a small group of “fully committed” Fair Trade coffee roasters.

Cooperative Coffees, a cooperative importer of organic and Fair Trade coffees, is a key partner in our CAFE Livelihoods project.  And we have coordinated efforts with the Fair Trade pioneer Equal Exchange on the ground in El Salvador, where we have common partners.  These organizations began doing direct trade long before that term was trademarked, and have been doing so ever since.  And doing so in the context of long-term relationships in which prices are high and there are other investments, besides.  For these organizations, every trade is Fair Trade, reducing the complexity of these relationships considerably.

Fair Trade Futures.

Beginning tomorrow, 10 September, nearly 800 farmers, roasters, retailers, NGOs, academics, activists and others who are stakeholders in the “fully-committed” Fair Trade model will gather in Boston for the Fair Trade Futures Conference.  There, they will explore issues of common concern and set an agenda for the future that increases the value of Fair Trade, both at origin and in the marketplace.  My colleagues from the CRS Fair Trade Program are part of the Leadership Group (along with Cooperative Coffees and Equal Exchange), and will be participating in the event, along with five representatives of farmer organizations participating in our CAFE Livelihoods project.

The Fair Trade Ecosystem.

While many “fully committed” Fair Trade organizations also rely on Fair Trade Certification, the majority of companies selling Fair Trade Certified products are far from “fully committed.”  By volume and value, Fair Trade Certification dwarfs fully-committed Fair Trade.  The list of companies selling Fair Trade Certified products includes brands that are household names, while the ranks of the fully-committed Fair Trade organizations are filled with brands few have heard of.  The two approaches are very different.  Yet they are both part of what an old friend once called the “Fair Trade ecosystem” (thanks, Shayna!) and both go by the name of “Fair Trade.”  This can cause confusion among consumers and consternation among some advocates and practioners of fully-committed Fair Trade, some of whom were living out its principles long before certification ever existed and nearly all of whom believe they are creating more impact on the ground than companies less committed to Fair Trade.

Winston Churchill on Fair Trade?

I think the best description of Fair Trade may come from a comment Winston Churchill once made to the House of Commons.  Granted, he was about democracy and Government.  But try swapping “Trade” for “Government” and “Fair Trade” for “democracy.”

“Many forms of [Trade] have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that [Fair Trade] is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that [Fair Trade] is the worst form of [Trade] except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

It may be the best possible way to characterize Fair Trade.

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Follow the action from Fair Trade Futures at the CRS Fair Trade blog and Facebook page.

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