Filed under: Coop, Ethical Purchasing Policies, Fair Trade, Gender, Human Rights, International development, Local Food, Oppression, Politics, Politics and trade, Student Activism, Trade, Women's rights | Tags: Aid, Alternative trade, Charity, Coop, Cooperation, Cooperative, Cooperatives, Fair Trade, Help, Paternalism, Paternalistic, Solidarity, Trade
By Ian Hussey
[ See also my second letter to the fair trade movement and Wolfville wasn’t first! for examples of related commentary. Other related material can be found on this blog by using the categories and archives scroll-down menus ]
I’ve been thinking about writing this letter for a while. And, recently, I’ve been thinking about walking away from the fair trade movement. The thought still crosses my mind from time-to-time.
I first came across the idea of fair trade when Just Us! Coffee Roasters Coop opened a cafe and roastery in a small converted house in New Minas, Nova Scotia in 1995. I was 15 at the time, listening to punk (real punk!), and reading about NAFTA and the Zapatistas in the nation-state the world now knows as Mexico, and the solidarity of people around the world working with the Zapatistas.
Being a teenager, I was still trying to figure out the world and where I fit in it. I’m still trying to figure that out, haha. Just Us! Coop, particularly Jeff Moore, was my first teacher on matters of fair trade. The fair trade I learned about was synonymous with the coop movement, and values and actions encompassing solidarity, transparency, respect, dialogue, and mutual accountability.
The fair trade I see today does not encompass all, and in some cases any, of these values. I understand that other business models, besides various coop models, work well, too, and can encompass these values. E.g. Oxfam Fair Trade’s commitment to employing people with disabilities and using biodegradable packaging, and Alternative Ground’s general good nature, their participation in Cooperative Coffees, and commitment to the environment. That is not what I’m trying to say.
I wonder about the fair trade movement’s values. And, I wonder about “development workers'” values. I can’t tell you how many fair traders, “global citizens,” and “global educators” I’ve heard drop what the student trade justice movement and others call the H-BOMB. Help. Or similar words or concepts like “support,” “aid,” “assist,” and so on. “We must help producers.” “They need our support.” Etc. I feel like making sarcastic comments, like: “yes, let’s come down from on high and help the lowly Africans. Let’s treat them like children and like objects. Let’s do the same for other ‘developing’ people so one day they can be ‘developed’ like us.” As an organizer, that kind of comment likely wouldn’t be useful in reaching the end I and others have in mind.
Coming up through the ranks of the grassroots student movement, I learned with others in anti-oppression trainings that the H-BOMB signified a paternalistic relationship and attitude toward the people around the world we, as student organizers (some of us radicals), were working with in solidarity. This conceptual paradigm of “helping” goes right to the top of the international fair trade movement, or perhaps it starts there (let’s not get into a chicken and egg discussion).
The Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) International uses this type of language and attitude toward farmers and workers all the time. It’s commonplace throughout many of their actions. For instance, sometimes I wonder why it took FLO International about a decade to include producers on their board of directors. I wonder why it took over a decade to increase the fair trade floor price. I wonder about signing major multi-national corporations – who have screwed people around the world for decades and are showing no sign of stopping any time soon – to the fair trade label and pushing for volume while forgetting about values. I wonder what kind of signal this sends to people: producers, consumers, activists, coops, 100% fair traders, multi-nationals, and so on.
The H-BOMB is dropped throughout many of the FLO International’s various communications, including the FINE definition of fair trade – the supposed internationally agreed upon definition of fair trade; the supposed authoritative definition of fair trade. So, how do the authorities define fair trade?
(FINE comprises FLO International, the International Fair Trade Association or International Federation for Alternative Trade (IFAT), the Network of European Worldshops (NEWS), and the European Fair Trade Association (EFTA – not to be confused with the European Free Trade Association, who have the same acronym).
The FINE definition:
“Fair trade is an organized social movement and market-based approach to alleviating global poverty and promoting sustainability. The movement advocates the payment of a fair price as well as social and environmental standards in areas related to the production of a wide variety of goods. It focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries, most notably handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fresh fruit, and so on and so forth.
“Fair trade’s strategic intent is to deliberately work with marginalised producers and workers in order to help them move from a position of vulnerability to security and economic self-sufficiency. It also aims at empowering them to become stakeholders in their own organizations and actively play a wider role in the global arena to achieve greater equity in international trade” (from the Fair Trade wiki page).
Questions for the fair trade movement or whomever wants to chime in:
1. How alternative is fair trade from free trade as a market-based approach to business?
2. Can we think of more appropriate language besides “developing” and “developed”, and “North” and “South”?
3. Is fair trade about more than a supposed fair price?
4. Are we helping people or working with them?
5. Can you empower someone or give someone power?
6. Do you think others besides Europeans should be involved in the discussion aimed at defining fair trade?
7. Is fair trade just about international trade or is it about trade within a nation-state as well?
8. Do you have other questions for the fair trade movement or other alternative trade movements?
I recently posted a response to some questions students at the University of Toronto had for me about advocating for their school to adopt a Fair Trade Certified Product Purchasing Policy. In response to one of the questions, I remember writing something to the effect that if the university adopted a policy, then they’d have to circulate a Request for Proposals for specific products (e.g. coffee, sugar, hot chocolate, chocolate bars, or whatever). I told these student activists that by law the university’s purchasing manager would need to reward the contract to the business with the lowest bid who satisfied all of the bid criteria, including that the product they would be supplying the university is Fair Trade Certified by TransFair Canada. I told these activists that this meant that a company that is 100% committed to fair trade might win the contract, but a company that is 5% committed to fair trade also had a chance to bid on and win the contract. I’ve been thinking a lot about that response since I posted it. I’m not satisfied with it, at all. I wonder: how much does having a policy in place shift the rules of and the ultimate effect of the local marketplace? Moreover, how can we shift local marketplaces to being instruments for a solidarity economy? And, how does “domestic” and international fair trade fit into that?
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