What’s happening with Fair Trade?

by on February 12, 2011

Big kerfluffle, well explained in the following posts; make sure to read the comments. My thoughts on how this relates to other certifications follow.

These posts bring up a two-pronged issue that is not only at the crux of the discontent with TransFair USA/Fair Trade USA, but could apply to other certifications. It’s akin to “mission creep,” though arguably with worse consequences. It’s a veering away or dilution of the mission. First is the incorrect notion that the Fair Trade movement is about alleviating poverty, rather than creating a viable alternative market that addresses global trade systems that are unfair to small producers (and providing the resources needed to empower these producers). The post at The Other explains what this market/goal what this looks like, and what it does not, while the second Small Farmers, Big Change post has a great example regarding tea and plantation certification.

Which brings us to the second prong, and the heart of the matter, which is that the contention that TransFair USA/Fair Trade USA is more concerned with growing the “brand” than advancing the mission. Small Farmers, Big Change quotes a coffee cooperative rep from Peru:

“They are so concerned with growing the system, advancing at all costs, that they will only end with the extinction of small farmers.”

By shifting away from the small producers and trying to get as many products and players into the Fair Trade system as possible, the argument goes, the standards are being weakened. Creating a second set of modified standards to bring large (often corporate) producers into the fold allows them to “green” a small portion of their sourcing, and offer these goods at a price that can undercut that of cooperatives and smaller producers. If nothing else, this “corporatization” of Fair Trade is creating real anger and alienation, which is beginning to lead to public confusion and distrust of Fair Trade certifications in general.

This has an unsettling parallel in the eco-certification world: the rapid growth and expansion of Rainforest Alliance certified farms, forests, and products. It’s old news that many people are unhappy with Rainforest Alliance working with corporations that seem largely at odds with the spirit of the certification (you can read my post “Discontent with certifications” from more on this topic)., although it certainly hasn’t reached the revolt stage we seem to be approaching with Fair Trade. Many people are watching how the Fair Trade issue plays out, and it may shape the progress and strategies of other certification schemes in the future.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Certifications,Fair and Direct Trade

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