What is “Fair”?

Today I received a note from a good friend who has spent over a decade in the Fair Trade movement. When I say “Fair Trade” here I am making the assumption that you all know exactly what I mean. But as it turns out, that is a pretty big assumption. So I need to explain.

My buddy Bill’s message was responding to the current debate in Fair Trade and how it is being framed. On NPR, in the New York Times, and in other outlets it has been reduced to an argument between fully-committed 100% fair trade companies and behemoth multi-national roasters who only buy a small percentage of their beans under “Fair Trade” minimum terms. The tension is described as one between ideologically driven small-scale businesses that move a little FT coffee versus minimally-committed corporations that move huge volumes of FT Certified(TM) beans. This is an important contrast– and one that deserves to be considered– but it only tells part of the story.<--break->

Bill pointed out that reducing the disagreements in the movement to questions of scale we lose sight of many important contradictions that have built up in “Fair Trade” over the last 15 years including what the term means on a basic level.

Some things to consider:

  • Who controls the movement and the standards? Why has their been historically little or no producer participation in building and monitoring norms? Why has this almost exclusively been the role of certifiers in the global north that– like “Fair Trade USA”– become rogue, uncooperative, and immune to criticism over the years?

  • What does “fair trade” mean? Is it a certification system and brand that only requires a minimum price commitment? Or is it a larger movement that has a pricing component, but also requires companies in the consuming countries to commit to transparency and long-term relationships that include pre-harvest financing and community development? There are companies that use one or the other, but no real distinction between them in what we call “fair trade”.

  • What does it mean when certifiers in the global north– and companies for that matter– derive more relative benefit more from “Fair Trade” than farmers and their communities? Can we really say that this is fair?

All of these things will be on the table when stakeholders throughout the Fair Trade Movement meet to chart out how we will respond to the new Fair Trade scene and where we are going to go from here. It will be an opportunity to raise the bar of what we consider “fair” and to have participation at the ground level from producers who are the primary reason for the existence of the movement itself. Whether it is creating a standardized template for a “fair trade” contract, refining measurements of impact so that we truly understand the benefits to farmers, putting more focus on supporting grower cooperatives and democratic economics, or linking more explicitly with other movements for social justice, we have a lot of work to do.

If nothing else this is a time for creating and redefining. Everything is up for grabs and we have a chance to re-shape our movement and to do it right. Bill’s message reminds me of the opening that we are standing in and, like so many others recently, inspires me to work for what is right.