Fair Trade is Dead


Now dry that tear because I have some good news. Out of Fair Trade’s™ ashes there is already a movement to build something better and it is coming from the people who were virtually shut out of the old system– the producers themselves. After four days of meetings with coffee farmers from all over Latin America, as well as mission-based coffee roasters and other allies, it is clear that there is abundant energy for rebuilding a model of fair trade with true representation from all involved and that comes from farmers themselves. This new spirit can be seen in many initiatives, but most concretely in the Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe’s (CLAC) new label that highlights products grown and sold by small-scale producer cooperatives under terms defined as fair by the producers themselves and agreed upon with buyers in true partnership. This small farmer-owned certification system is up and running and will be a market force to be reckoned with by the end of 2012.

During our conversations a veteran of the small-farmer movement in Mexico summed up the situation nicely:

“In 1997 we were in meetings with other fair traders when FLO announced that they were forming and would be setting the standards for our movement. Many of us stood up and walked out.” He said that from that moment on farmers knew that, despite good intentions, they had already lost control of what would become branded as “Fair Trade”. Over the years the certifying bodies in the north controlled the conversation and set the norms with “feedback” from farmers, but without farmers truly having any ownership of the organization. Consumers could see farmers’ faces on marketing materials and bags of coffee, but could not hear producer voices. Now farmers want their voices heard.

Fair trade is not a brand owned by companies and non-profits in the global north. The “look for the label” movement bet that people were simply “consumers” who could not stop for longer than a few seconds to think and truly care about what they were supporting with their purchases. They were wrong. True fair trade can start with a simple communication on a product, but it goes deeper as people start to ask questions about every product that they purchase– including those bearing “the label”. Real fair trade is in small-farmers and their democratic cooperatives as well as in our hometown farmer’s markets, small businesses, and communities– these things are connected and worth supporting and fighting for. Authentic fair trade is a mutual agreement between people who produce things and the people who buy them. Its standards are the result of equals transparently negotiating in good faith with the intention of both parties satisfying their basic needs. All of this results– little by little– in a world where “producers” and “consumers” see each other as people and together work toward creating a sustainable global economy and global society.

Fair Trade™ is dead. It is played out, stale, corrupted, and largely meaningless. When the CEO of the US body that claims ownership of it makes a quarter million dollars a year, drops gems like “Small is not beautiful”, and brands small farmer advocates as “fanatical”, you can go ahead and close the coffin lid. When Starbucks becomes corporate leader of the system while it simultaneously boasts of paying under world market prices for its coffee in its own CSR report, rigor mortis has set in. When plantations– with their traditionally indentured labor forces– are welcomed in with open arms while small farmers’ voices fall on deaf ears, the bucket has officially been kicked.

Fair Trade™ is surely dead.

Long live fair trade.