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Label It: Fair

I set out to write about some new, exciting news in the world of coffee: the Small Producer label that made its way to the shelves of Willy Street Co-op in October of this year. After interviewing Matt Earley from Just Coffee about this, I realized it was essential to also write about the recent twists and turns in the world of fair trade; however, the current fair trade context relies on understanding the history of the movement. Yet it is impossible to look at that fair trade history without comprehending how and why it emerged in the first place, as an alternative to the free trade model. So, this story begins... in the maps and arms of globalization.

“In this case ‘free’ means free to do good and bad. As individuals our free choices are often kept in check because we are accountable for their ramifications by friends, family, our community. . . While a corporation is made up of people, it is not human by nature. When such an entity can make unhindered free choices, that freedom to choose can result in some universally negative consequences, from environmental degradation to outright human exploitation on a large scale.”
As the fair trade movement developed in response to the free market, it seems critical to have a basic understanding about why the free trade model is problematic. Broadly put, this model has been protested and critiqued throughout the world for its fundamental role in increasing globalization. “The problem with the free trade logic is that it puts trade above people’s lives and shifts government focus from the welfare of people to the promotion of exports and imports,” writes Vandana Shiva.

Free trade uses a framework of deregulated markets, where the ultimate competition revolves around the cheapest production of goods. On this large scale, organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Organization of American States (OAS) promote free market agendas through agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Yet many consumers would have difficulty defining what free trade actually is, and how we have (unfairly) benefited economically from its application in the U.S. It is not uncommon for media outlets to conflate the usages of “free” and “fair” when describing trade, thereby confusing many people, particularly in privileged countries.

As the dominant system of global trade, “the rules and policies of free trade are designed to create a stable and profitable environment for corporations and investors,” explains Cathleen Sullivan. These far-reaching policies create global contexts where poverty is accelerated, workers are exploited or enslaved, environmental protections are disregarded, and forced economic migration becomes inevitable. Free trade is often regarded as a continuation of colonialism. Derrick Jensen summarizes this in his article “Free Trade™”: “Negotiations aren’t possible when one side holds a gun and the other does not. . . anytime some community sits on a resource needed by those in power, and chooses not to sell this resource (at a price convenient for the powerful), the people are killed, the community destroyed, the resource stolen.”

Around the planet, there have been and continues to be intensive resistance and countless responses and struggles against free market imperialism. One such response was the Zapatistas’ declaration of war on the day NAFTA went into effect in Mexico. They asserted their struggle for “work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace.” Another very different response has been the creation of an alternative system of internationally-traded goods, also known as the fair trade movement.

“Every product out there has a commodity chain or supply chain associated with it. These chains are kept invisible. In our advanced consumer society, products exist for consumers as consumers; they are not associated with the dirt, noise, trucks, boats, exploitation or the mindless repetition that created them. It is our job to understand how products are produced and to educate our fellow citizen consumers.” -Rink Dickinson, co-founder of Equal Exchange

The movement towards a fairer system of global trade can be traced back to religious groups and non-profits in the 1940s and 1950s. Ten Thousand Villages and SERRV International were two of the first to begin importing and selling handicrafts with the intention of changing the way trade is conducted. This initiative was coined “alternative trade” until Oxfam created the first “Fair Trade” organization in the mid-1960s. During the 1960s and 1970s, the fair trade movement began to reflect a growing protest against neo-imperialism. The concept of solidarity trade was incorporated into the movement; this included finding markets for products from Nicaragua, Angola, and other countries that were politically marginalized.

In response to the inequitable exchange of exploitive free market trade and small returns of development aid between countries, “trade not aid” became an early message of the fair trade movement. Non-governmental organizations were formed to assist, advise, and support producers and importers, with an emphasis on transparency, partnership, and dialogue. The sales of products were linked to educating consumers about conventional trade, and raising awareness about the repercussions of free markets.

Eventually, as the fair trade movement grew, a need for larger distribution channels emerged. In an effort to expand the model without compromising the integrity of the exchange, a fair trade certification process (Max Havelaar) was initiated in the Netherlands. In 1988, the fair trade seal was introduced, which brought a steady increase in sales and marketing opportunities. Following this, a number of non-governmental organizations were set up to certify products and audit these fair trade exchanges.

In 1997, the umbrella organization Fairtrade Labelling International (FLO) was established to set international standards and harmonize the fair trade message. The vision of FLO includes a world where “people can overcome disadvantage and marginalization if they are empowered to take more control over their work and their lives, if they are better organised, resourced and supported, and can secure access to mainstream markets under fair trading conditions.” This includes a systemic focus on reducing poverty, but only if trade “is managed for that purpose, with greater equity and transparency than is currently the norm.” A significant part of this work involves educating consumers about the importance of changing the dominant structures of trade.

As consumers in a global economy, we can often be quite distanced from the production of goods we rely on, as well as the history that enabled those goods to make it to us. For many people, oil is the first resource that tends to come to mind when thinking in terms of global trade (and exploitation). However, coffee is the second most valuable traded commodity (after oil), and tops the list of food imported into the United States. While coffee has now become the most widely recognizable fair trade certified product, it was not one of the original products imported in the alternative trade initiative of the 1940s. After it was introduced to the fair trade market in 1973, other agricultural products such as tea, sugar, and cocoa began to enter as well, which helped the movement gain significant momentum.

“Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle’s Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top.” -Sarah Vowell

Tea and coffee, olive oil, cocoa and bananas are food items that most consumers in the United States are unwilling to give up. However, these foods are unable to be cultivated on a large scale in almost all of the bioregions in this country. In order to consume them, they must, therefore, be imported. This poses the problem of distancing—how do we know about our food if we aren’t personally growing and cultivating it, or don’t have a relationship with the people whoare? What is it that we want to know?

I would argue that consumers mostly want to know that the food we consume is safe. Even if health is not the primary reason that we choose foods, consumers don’t want to eat food that is harmful. We trust nutrition labels to tell us what ingredients are in a given product, and we trust governmental entities (like the USDA) to create food production and handling guidelines that ensure our safety. We trust the organic label to verify food grown without pesticides and fertilizers. We trust certifications, we trust labels.

Food labels are shortcuts. They direct our (short) attention to the most pertinent clues we are seeking about a product. In the absence of a label for “humane working conditions” or “fair wages,” what can we rely on to know what the quality of life is like for the people who produce our food? I would argue that many consumers are highly concerned about this question, and are seeking ways to vote with their dollars (a concept we talk about often at Willy Street Co-op).

The fair trade label has been one such guide for many consumers who are looking to support alternative models of international trade. The Fair World Project asserts that “certified fair trade products now represent a multi-billion dollar industry with over 10,000 products in the marketplace. Consumer demand for fair trade products has steadily risen over the course of the last decade thanks to the tireless work of dedicated advocates, fully committed companies, and students.” This label has guided consumers who want to eat “slave-free” chocolate, or purchase coffee cultivated by small farmers, not on plantations.

However, as shortcuts, labels can often be misleading. According to Nasser Abufarha and Gero Leson, “the use of the term ‘fair trade’ on a label is not protected by law and may well be meaningless unless it is supported by a recognized validation system. Responsible manufacturers ensure that their claims of fair trade production are independently verified under a reputable third-party fair trade certification program.” These verification programs have tended to work with each other to maintain certain fundamental similarities that are critical to furthering a fair, alternative system of trade. Recently, however, there has been a divorce of sorts.

“If you choose to look at who is making this decision to radically change the imperfect tool called fair trade, you might admit that it is nearly totally driven by well intentioned white folks in the US with lots of money and big dreams. This feels like a move right out of the colonial playbook.” -Jonathan Rosenthal, co-founder of Equal Exchange
On December 31, 2011, Fair Trade USA (formely TransFair USA) decided to resign its membership with the umbrella organization of FLO, after disagreeing about some rather fundamental issues. One of them in particular is the intention of Fair Trade USA to begin certifying coffee plantations and non-cooperative farms, a move that many have criticized as being driven by major corporations like Starbucks and Green Mountain. This news has hit the fair trade world pretty hard, as FTUSA’s label is probably the most recognizable one in the US. (Their seal is a black, white, and grey, and depicts a person holding two large bowls in the foreground, resembling a balanced scale.) Many leaders within the fair trade movement have been vocal opponents of this fracture.

Fair World Project, in its rejection of FTUSA’s newly revised standards, draws attention to another facet of disagreement: “Companies that have been known for shirking corporate responsibility and fair trade, such as Hershey’s, could place the FTUSA mark on their chocolate bars by sourcing fair trade sugar but not certified fair trade cocoa. What’s more, under the new FTUSA labeling standards, a ‘fair trade’ chocolate bar could in fact contain sugar, vanilla, or cocoa produced using child or forced labor, even though all these ingredients are commercially available in fair trade form.”

“Fair trade coffee has been a valuable experiment,” writes Scott Sherman in his article “The Brawl Over Fair Trade Coffee” from The Nation, “one that has brought concrete benefits to hundreds of thousands of farmers. But it rests upon a fragile foundation, and the corporate embrace of the concept could undo decades of work by activists, consumers and farmers: democratically run, farmer-owned cooperatives may be unable to compete with corporate-sponsored plantations.” This is beginning to echo a familiar refrain: once a label/concept/idea begins to show profitability, it becomes a tool to be co-opted by big business.

In November of 2011, Matt Earley took a different approach in his post on the Just Coffee website. He expressed a desire to “challenge the FT movement to use this time as a rare opportunity. . . to see where it is we have come from, where exactly we are now, and then to use this knowledge to chart a course for the future. Self critique and debate are not signs of weakness – they are critical in building a vital and important movement. . . We should embrace this moment as an opportunity as opposed to shunning it as a crisis.”

“You’re either fixing the model to fit into the current structure, and there’s merit in that, or you’re changing the model and building a new structure. That’s much more exciting and profound and important, we think. That’s why we like the small producer label. It’s small farmers, it’s co-ops. They own it.” -Matt Earley

In March of 2006, the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Small Fair Trade Producers (CLAC) unveiled the Small Producers Symbol. This seal is based on principles of sustainable production and solidarity economy, and seeks to strengthen a commitment to the movement for trade justice. “It is a unique initiative created and owned by small producers from the South to identify ourselves in the local and international market,” writes Jeronimo Pruijn.

After the Símbolo de Pequeños Productores (SPP) began to gather momentum in 2010, it expanded coverage into Africa and Asia. With climate change reducing crop yields and the ever-present free market pushing down on prices, alongside the current fair trade upheaval, the SPP is emerging as a new potential solution. In actuality, there has always remained a need to centralize the struggles of small producers. The new label “has come to represent hope for many small producers, who see this Symbol as their own seal that represents the original fair trade values,” says Xiomara Paredes, CLAC Operations Manager. This initiative establishes a farmer-led sense of ownership that has been underrepresented within the changing fair trade movement.

This October, Just Coffee was the first company in the US market to introduce the new label on one of their blends, and we began carrying it at Willy Street Co-op. They, along with Equal Exchange, are two of a handful of companies that have jumped on board to sell SPP-labeled coffee. The need for further education and advocacy around this seal, and equitable trade in general, remains. Matt Earley spells this out to all of us: “This is becoming a mainstream idea, you can’t stop there. You have to ask people to take the next step. What is fair trade? What does this label mean? Why is it that this company has this label on it and they’re a huge corporation, and this [small] company over here has the same label. . . and these are two totally different models? What’s the difference? What’s the end goal? I think people are actually hungry for this. I think it’s a huge mistake not to ask people to take the next step and do more.”

Thank you

  • Matt Earley of Just Coffee

  • Vandava Shiva, “The Poor Can Buy Barbie Dolls”

  • Cathleen Sullivan, “Free Trade Area of theAmericas: Demystifying the Corporate Jargon”

  • Derrick Jensen, “Free Trade™”

  • Lucas Fowler of Equal Exchange

  • Rebecca Wood, “For the Love of Chocolate”

  • Nasser Abufarha & Gero Leson, “How Do You Know It’s Really Fair Trade?”

  • Scott Sherman, “The Brawl Over Fair Trade Coffee”

  • Jeronimo Pruijn, “Small Producers Organizations at the Forefront of Fair Trade”

  • EZLN’s Declaration of War

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