The Fair Trade Miracle... How Did It Happen?
In the face of the universal gospel of “free trade”, it was heresy. Yet it took hold and now that the global economy is in shambles, it stands as a potential model for doing business differently, globally and locally.
Or does it?
It started as a simple proposal in the late 80’s. At the height of “free trade” frenzy, aimed at breaking down all obstacles and obligations, political, social and environmental for international trade. The crass justification for free trade was that if those with wealth were able to maximize their profits, it would “trickle down” to everyone else. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith suggested that was akin to thinking “if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows”.
Rather than, or perhaps in addition to, the high-minded but ultimately hopeless protests at the time, the idea of Fair Trade was to make a concrete proposal – concrete ideas that would foster concrete actions.
Could we create a model where all the social and environmental costs of agricultural production were included and get quality products directly to market at a fair price? A Fair Trade “seal” would make it possible to encourage conscientious consumers to form an alliance with Fair Trade producers and their trading partners and challenge the excesses and irresponsibility of the so called “free market”.
It began with small scale coffee farmers in Latin America but the ideas rang true for family farmers and consumers around the world and “Fair Trade”, local and global, just took off.
The ideas were brilliant in their clarity and simplicity and the originators Nico Roozen and Francisco van der Hoff deserve recognition as some of the leading social reformers of our time.
However, the success of Fair Trade, now measured in billions and billions of dollars, may be its undoing. Maybe it’s the way the Fair Trade certification process (i.e. control of the "seal") was set up from the start.
The key players on the Fair Trade stage now seems to be those big businesses and the Fair Trade bureaucracy that control the “seal”. Fair Trade producers and the consumer advocates who believed in Fair Trade as a force for change are fading into the background. It feels like the tail is wagging the dog.
The Fair Trade movement, at its roots, is about change: people getting involved, taking leadership and trying to make a difference in this world. Just at the time it has proven itself and it’s most needed, it seems to be at risk of losing its original spirit.
Fair Trade doesn’t belong to big business or the certifying bodies. It belongs to the producers, the advocates in the countless church, student, labour and community groups and all those that want to do business differently. How do we get it back and make it work for the purposes for which it was intended? We need a certification system but it should serve the interests of the movement rather than the other way around. Right now, it seems to have no real connection or accountability to the movement, and that has to change.
Jeff Moore is a founder and the CEO of Just Us! Coffee Roasters Coop; the first company licensed to sell Fair Trade Certified products in Canada. To learn more about Just Us!, visit www.justuscoffee.com.