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Is Fair Trade Really A Complete Failure???
06 Jun '14

Well, the Globe and Mail really created quite a stir last week with their article, Fairtrade coffee fails to help the poor, British report finds (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/international-business/fairtrade-coffee-fails-to-help-the-poor-british-report-finds/article18852585/#dashboard/follows/). For those of you who are interested in the actual report and not just the attention-grabbing, somewhat misleading headlines associated with modern media you can access the report here.

 

It was quite a week for Fairtrade International. The organization probably hasn’t seen that much interest in years. It’s unfortunate that negative or shocking media coverage such as this is the only way to get attention these days. Fairtrade International has posted their official response here. Also, Fairtrade Canada has posted a response from Fairtrade International’s Chief Executive Officer, Harriet Lamb, on their website: http://fairtrade.ca/en/news-views/news/unpeeling-impacts-poverty.

 

From our perspective here at Just Us! we aren’t particularly surprised with the results of the study. Our co-founder, Jeff Moore, identified a number of the issues Fairtrade International was experiencing back in 2009 when he posted an article on Fairtrade Canada’s blog: http://fairtrade.ca/en/news-views/editorials/fair-trade-miracle-how-did-it-happen. However, it is important to remember that this study only looked at 12 cases in two countries in East Africa. In our opinion this is hardly grounds to extrapolate across the globe to tens of thousands of fair trade organizations over the past 25 years.

 

There are plenty of critical points to be made about fair trade (notice that we like to use two words without upper case) and its successes and failures over the years. We think “Fairtrade” has focused too much on its label and brand, welcoming huge corporations into the fold, certifying plantations, and measuring its success in how many billions of dollars in sales it can facilitate. Make no mistakes however, fair trade at the grassroots level has always focused on democratically organized smallholders; not plantations, except in the case of tea and some other commodities that traditionally have never really been grown by small producers.

 

In our messaging to our customers we have always focused on the people fair trade was designed to help: very poor small producers who are otherwise in danger of losing their land and becoming another one of the extremely poor migrant labourers on which this SOAS study focuses. Over the past three years, Just Us! has transitioned many of our products to the Small Producer Symbol (SPP in Spanish). At this point about 90% of our coffee is certified SPP. Our belief has always been that fair trade belongs to the organized small producers themselves—not the certifying bodies or businesses that sell their products. Just Us! was ecstatic when small producers of the Global South stood up and decided to forge new roads in fair trade for themselves by creating their own distinguishing fair trade symbol.

 

The SPP movement is digging deeper to ensure that democracy within the producer organizations that carry the seal is truly inclusive and as a result, provide access to benefits and networks, and more power to lobby their governments in the fight against injustice. Since this organization is run by small producer organizations we believe that they know best what they require for fair trade to work for them. In addition we ask the hard questions every year or two when we visit our long-term relationships. Sometimes we find instances where improvements can be made but most times we find genuinely engaged producers doing the best they can for themselves and their communities considering the deck has been stacked against them from the beginning.

 

We certainly welcome this study here at Just Us! and appreciate that there is much work to be done to alleviate the poverty of temporary and permanent labourers on farms around the world. Just Us! certainly does not condone the poor treatment of any agricultural labourer in the fair trade system or otherwise. Our contention, however, is that fair trade was never designed to universally solve the problem of poverty. If any of us believe that one movement could solve such an enormously complex and far-reaching issue in 25 years then dare I say we were a little naïve. Fair trade aims to put more money in the hands of small producers and their communities, but even more importantly than that, fair trade empowers small producers across the Global South to come together in a democratically organized fashion to access capital, network with other smallholders around the world, affect change in their communities, and in the most successful situations, affect change at the national and even regional levels (e.g. Latin America as a whole). Let’s not defame the entire movement of fair trade and stop it in its tracks. Instead, let’s come together and acknowledge the successes and shortcomings of the movement and do more to support these small producer organizations that represent the potential to shift economic, and hence, political, social, racial and environmental relations.