Farewell to Fair Trade Certified?

Dark days have come to the fair trade movement. The social movement, which has worked for years to change international trade for the benefit of small-scale farmers, has recently taken a blow, threatened by cooptation and corruption by large corporations. And at the helm of these upsetting developments? Fair Trade USA (formerly Transfair): the same institution that supposedly strives to “inspire the rise of the conscious consumer” and “empower small farmers” around the world.

Since the very beginnings of the fair trade movement, the means to achieve its goals have been disputed. Many dedicated fair traders, like Dean’s Beans, have always fought to maintain the principles of the movement by cultivating a deep and meaningful version of fair trade. Others, like Fair Trade USA (who licenses the “Fair Trade Certified” seal in the US), valued growth over depth (the logic being: increase sales = help more farmers). To do this, large corporations like Kraft, Nestle, Starbucks and Green Mountain entered the fray, and together with Fair Trade USA and their certification, the dilution and cooptation of the fair trade movement began.

Over the years we have seen troubling signs of the diluting standards of the “Fair Trade Certified” seal: the lack of transparency at Fair Trade USA (under the guise of “corporate confidentiality”), the continued push to allow plantations to be “Fair Trade Certified”, loosening logo usage rules to allow the certification of products that only contain a small percentage of “Fair Trade Certified” ingredients. Fair Trade USA, for example, will now certify some products that contained as little as 2% Fair Trade ingredients, and, in one example, has promoted these kinds of products on their website as their ‘product of the week’! In a marketplace where certifications already confuse consumers, we feel that Fair Trade USA’s actions are misleading and unethical. They are lowering the bar instead of raising it!

The most recent – and most troubling – move from Fair Trade USA was their decision to split from Fairtrade International, the global umbrella organization that sets the standards for fair trade. They chose to go their own way and to create their own standards, departing from the unified vision of the global fair trade community. As a result, plantation-grown products will soon be able to be “Fair Trade Certified”, an idea that farmers and serious fair traders have unanimously objected to for years.

Fair Trade USA never consulted with the fair trade community (farmers, importers and roasters) before abandoning the international system that created them, despite its claim that Fair Trade USA “collaborate[s] and partner[s] for mutual success”. Clearly their actions diverge from their value statement. Here’s a quote from CAN, an umbrella organization that supports over 800 producer organizations in 60 countries:

At this very promising moment for Fairtrade International [we] are very disappointed to learn that Fair Trade USA has resolved to leave the Fairtrade Labelling system (FLO), all the more so as [we] have not been consulted prior to this decision. [We] are also disappointed to see that Fair Trade USA has chosen to define its own orientations rather than forming part of the global vision, key principles and shared strategy endorsed by all members of Fairtrade International. The Producer Networks cannot support this unilateral action on the part of Fair Trade USA, which goes against [our] aspirations and interests.

What could be worse than a supposedly ‘fair trade’ organization taking actions that farmers are against? And we can see why the farmers would be upset: Fairtrade International, the global organization, shares equal ownership between producers and non-producers. Fair Trade USA, however, only has one producer representative on its board of directors, and he happens to work at a cooperative that supplies many of their beans to Starbucks and other multi-national corporations.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this coup by Fair Trade USA is that the majority of the 50% of Americans who recognize the “Fair Trade Certified” seal will continue to trust its validity after these changes. After gaining widespread name recognition and consumer trust working with 100% fair traders and fair trade NGO’s, Fair Trade USA has decided to take the money and run, disregarding the concerns and objections of the entire fair trade community. Despite its title, Fair Trade USA has now shown that its motivation is not trade justice or farmer empowerment. Instead, they opt to play for money by lying with large corporations and gladly accept the consequences of isolating themselves from the global community and from the very farmers they allege to help.

Our prediction? Soon, Starbucks, Green Mountain and several other companies with meager participation in fair trade will become “100% Fair Trade Certified” overnight – not because they changed their business practices, but because Fair Trade USA has lowered the standards on their behalf.

So how can a consumer know who to trust anymore? We promise to tell you next week!

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