The global movement for fairer trade and ethical consumption continues to grow despite the global economic challenge of recessions. No question there is a long way to go, but it would be foolish to try and write this movement off as a fad or as ‘niche’, as so many have tried to do. In my eyes it is the fair trade movement that leads the way here. Fair trade is about much more than just being ethical in our purchases, simply making sure that the goods we purchase are not produced under unethical conditions. Fair trade, including Fairtrade Certification, brings to this the idea of empowerment. Empowering farmers, workers and artisans in the developing world through trading relationships aimed at improving their lives and that of their communities, while also empowering consumers and businesses to use their resources to support real change.
The diversity of organisations involved in fair trade has come to be quite impressive. There are stark contrasts in size, the products they sell and indeed what fair trade means to their overall business. On one hand you have a business like Carpets for Communities, a not-for-profit organisation established to empower families in one of Cambodia’s poorest regions by creating sustainable business opportunities for mothers and investing in programs in the local community. On the other hand you have a business like Starbucks, one of the world’s biggest global coffee chains and the largest purchaser of Fairtrade Certified coffee beans. Starbucks recently became the first business to invest in a new social investment fund aimed at providing low interest credit and finance for small holder farmers.
These are obviously two very different organisations. Can we credibly speak about the two of them in the same sentence as part of a fair trade movement? Some would say no. Some within the fair trade movement are questioning the desirability of working with larger commercial organisations and the ‘mainstreaming’ of fair trade via the Fairtrade Certification System.
We believe it is right for everyone within the movement to regularly reflect on its direction as well as the structures and processes we employ to get us to where we want to go. A recent blog post for the New Internationalist website highlights some recent events in the fair trade universe that illustrate this very need for collective self-reflection, namely the separation of Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) from Fairtrade International (FLO). FLO has stated its position on this and it is one that Fairtrade ANZ fully supports, you can read more on this on their website.
The piece on the New Internationalist site also asserted that “some of those who drive the Fairtrade labelling system these days seem too focused on their own narrow marketing and commercial imperatives”. Nobody within the Fairtrade Certification system would claim that scaling up Fairtrade to reach new markets, expand volume and increase impact for farmers and workers comes without significant challenges and questions. Serious discussions within the Fairtrade network occur daily weighing up the challenges of balancing growth with deepening impact, or balancing accessibility with credibility.
For example, how do we provide opportunities for the thousands of farmers and workers in the developing world who would like to enter the Fairtrade system to take advantage of its benefits, while ensuring that those producers already in the system continue to be supported on the journey they have undertaken? How do we engage the larger companies, who a growing number of consumers are calling on to provide farmers and workers in the developing world with fairer trading terms, while ensuring that those pioneers who have fair trade at the core of their business continue to thrive and be recognised for important example they provide? Clearly there is no single right answer.
What we can do however is strive hard for a process and structure that ensures the concerns of all stakeholders, in particular the producers, are reflected in decisions and strategy while all risks and opportunities are weighed carefully. Ensuring a greater producer voice in the direction and governance of FLO has been one such initiative. The New Internationalist piece caveats the acknowledgement that FLO has become ‘a bit more equitable’ through greater board representation with the statement that power still rests with the importing countries. However, it is that very producer representation (now to be 50% owned by the producers) that has seen FLO reinforce its commitment to small holder farmers in the wake of the Fair Trade USA decision. The General Manager of Nicaraguan coffee cooperative PRODECOOP, Merling Preza, pointed to the inclusion of producer participation in FLO’s central decision-making body as ‘real empowerment for farmers’. There’s that word, empowerment.
As the fair trade movement moves into another exciting period of growth, change and of course self-reflection there will be plenty of times that some of us will disagree on the method. However, I am confident that here at Fairtrade ANZ we will never focus only on commercial success to the point where we lose focus of our goal to empower communities through fairer trade.
By Daniel Mackey