Global Washington’s Seminar on Fair Trade: Promising Future, Unmet Potential

By Brian Pierce, guest blogger

Last week Global Washington co-sponsored a seminar on fair trade, along with the organizations Fair Trade Seattle, iLEAP, and Antioch University Seattle Center for Creative Change. Fair trade is undoubtedly a critical subject in global development, however the meeting was not an echo chamber of fair trade romanticism. Thoughtful critique by on-site participants of fair trade programs in Central America broke ground for meaningful discussion to sprout. While speakers naturally covered the “who’s who and what’s what” of fair trade, there was a significant degree of reflection and self-criticism. This kind of scrutiny is exactly what the fair trade movement needs when facing a force as domineering as world trade policy. Before fair trade can take on the world it must first address concerns like those raised by the on-site activists.

To begin with, what is fair trade? Stacie Ford Bonnelle, a presenter from Fair Trade Seattle and 10,000 Villages, described how fair trade can be defined in numerous ways: as a social justice movement, a tool for international development, or simply an alternative business model. FINE, an informal network of four Fair Trade Organizations (FTOs), provides the most widely accepted definition:

“A trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair Trade organizations (backed by consumers) are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising, and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.”              

So, the goals of fair trade are to empower marginalized people and improve their quality of life. These goals in their full flesh would certainly lead to a more equitable and prosperous world. There are problems, though. For instance, how does the socially conscious consumer know if they are truly purchasing fair trade items?

Identifying fair trade products can be tricky. There are numerous Fair Trade Labeling Organizations and FTOs pushing varying criteria including: Fair Trade Federation, Fair Trade USA, Fair for Life, World Fair Trade Organization, Equal Exchange, Global Exchange, and others. These organizations share common principals, but it is not unknown for an up-and-comer to promote their “better-than” fair trade goods. A consumer is liable to become helplessly entangled in the web of organizations.  Ms. Bonnelle argued that this system needs standardization, stating that “we need to make sure we have a standard and people know what these standards are.” Decentralization was not the only problem brought up by the panel.

Madeline Mendoza, an iLEAP Fellow and the Program Coordinator for Economic Justice at the Center for International Studies in Nicaragua spoke about how, while fair trade was improving the lives of the coffee producers she works with, changes are necessary. The global South continues to be trapped supplying the North with raw materials and are at risk of reinforcing an unhealthy agriculture export model of trade. This means that many developing countries continue focusing on cash crops like coffee and are then forced to import necessities like rice. Mendoza argued that fair trade is indistinguishable from its traditional market economy counterpart in this respect. Fair trade could be a perfect medium to address this disparity, but has thus far failed to do so.

From this inequality arises a clear point of contention from fair trade participants concerning the ownership of the system. Fair trade is meant to be an empowerment to individuals in developing countries, yet developed countries are the ones dictating the criteria for certification. The movement suffers from a lack of democracy in decision making; farmers feel as if they have none of the voice and the entire burden. As well, the great majority of goods currently affected by fair trade are agricultural cash crops. Mendoza argues that there needs to be a greater focus on local markets and diversification of products in her native Nicaragua, what she calls “food sovereignty.”

The notion that a huge burden of requirements is thrust upon fair trade growers was parroted by Mendoza’s counterpart, Agueda Ordeñana. Ordeñana, an iLEAP Fellow and member of the New Land Cooperative Union in Nicaragua described how certification expenses have fair trade participants questioning their decision. The cost of the yearly certification is about “one container of coffee out of twenty,” a cost that is almost wholly absorbed by the growers. To make matters worse, the fair trade price of coffee has remained stagnant even as conventionally traded coffee prices continue to rise. Ordeñana went on to say that if fair trade growers are to continue participating “we need results.”    

The goals of fair trade are vitally important. This enlightened system of trade has unquestionably provided a stable market and a means for growers from developing countries to dig up a piece of autonomy. However, the fair trade system appears to need review; open discussions like this can help bring about the changes needed for fair trade to meet its potential to truly empower the poor.