Filed under: Fair Trade, Politics | Tags: Authority, Corporations, Fair Trade, Living wage
By Ian Hussey
In a comment to my first letter to the fair trade movement, Vincent Lagace made us aware of a PDF that includes the official FINE definition of Fair Trade, available here: www.befair.be/site/download.cfm?SAVE=1314&LG=1
(FINE comprises Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) International, International Fair Trade Association, Network of European Worldshops, and European Fair Trade Association)
FINE’s definition of Fair Trade is quoted frequently and the people quoting it almost always say it is the authoritative, recognized, and internationally agreed upon definition. Whether “in reality” any of these things are true is not the point. Many people perceive it this way. Anyone who does research on fair trade or surfs the web for a bit can make that observation.
I won’t rewrite the definition here since you can open the PDF if you like. But it is worth pointing out, in my mind, that the definition says “Fair Trade organisations (backed by consumers) are engaged actively in supporting producers”. Especially when you consider something my friend and former officemate Debbie Dergousoff pointed out. Namely that the Labelling Initiatives (formerly known as National Initiatives) are the owners of the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) International, while producers are merely members of FLO International, not owners. Does that sound like a “supportive” relationship to you? Hmm
If Fair Trade is all about producers, if the ultimate goal or “strategic intent” of Fair Trade is “to empower producers” and “achieve greater equity in international trade”, then shouldn’t producers have the same say or more of a say in “the management” of the fair trade system than their trading partners and other movement “members” / “actors”?
The PDF says “The basic principles and strategic intent which the members of the FINE group endorse form the basis of their work and underpin the criteria/standards used for monitoring by the different networks.” Keep reading the PDF.
The second basic principle defined is “trading partnership”.
It reads: “To see trade as a mutual beneficial partnership based on dialogue, transparency and respect:
– “Treating each other with respect, taking different cultures and roles into consideration
– Being transparent and accountable in the presentation of the organisation, its finance and its structure as required by law or as required by Fair Trade agreements
– Providing information to facilitate market access
– Having an open and constructive communication
– In case of conflicts using dialogue and arbitration to overcome the problems”
Sounds great. Wal-Mart has its own line of Fair Trade Certified coffees, so does Starbucks, Nestle, and the list goes on. Are these trading “partnerships”? Are they based on dialogue, transparency and respect? Do they take different cultures into consideration? Remember the fight (and it was a fight) to get naming rights for Ethiopian coffees from Starbucks for Ethiopia? Is there open and constructive communication between farmers and workers, and their trading “partners”, especially multi-national corporation trading “partners”? If Wal-Mart ever starts bidding on school or municipal Fair Trade Requests for Proposals, then watch the entire volunteer base of Fair Trade walk away from the movement.
Furthermore, FLO International uses the term “third world” in many of their communications, glossy posters, etc. Is telling someone who lives in the same world as you, the only world we are all living in, that they are two steps behind a respectful dialogue?
I realize numbers are important to the world and fair trade, so are values and education. Is the level of fair trade education growing with the numbers? Why don’t you ask Wal-Mart? I’m sure they’ll be transparent and respectful in the dialogue you have with their PR person.
Later in the aforementioned PDF, the phrase “living wage” comes up. Are producers paid a living wage? Let’s be serious and honest – transparent, if you will. Producers cover their costs, and not much more, usually. That’s not a living wage in any ethical trade or labour rights policy I’ve ever read or been involved in writing. And, it is damn near impossible to define “living wage” tight enough to put that term in institutional policy. Most times, institutional purchasing managers and politicians are not willing to put the term “living wage” in policy because it is so hard to define, especially in a tight enough way to actually go in policy, be meaningful, operational/functional, and not abused. Moreover, does Wal-Mart pay its employees a “living wage”? Strange bedfellows.
FINE says they aim to uphold the International Labour Organizations’ core labour standards, and they mostly do that. Some No Sweat organizers have a harsher assessment of that, and if they are reading this letter and want to express that analysis here, I’m sure it will lead us to a further understanding of our work. One thing worth thinking about is that when going through the certification process, producer groups are told to form coops or affiliate in specific, institutionally defined ways – ways defined by FLO-Cert. These aren’t exactly organizations of farmers’ own choosing, in many instances. The certification standards dictate a lot of this stuff. And bill producer groups for the service. I understand budget constraints, and that the Fair Trade label can’t run on water, but are you doing what you say you are doing in your official policy? If not, policy wonks might suggest not putting it in your policy, or amending the language.
Neither this letter nor my previous one are “cries for help”, and I’m not “having a crisis”. But thank you for your kindness and concern for my well-being. Really. I am trying to be transparent about my thoughts and feelings about fair trade. I am writing these “letters” in what I consider to be a respectful manner, or at least trying hard to do so. I consider this to be a part of an ongoing dialogue. Many of my thoughts and feelings about fair trade and many of the questions raised in these letters are not “my” questions. I have had the opportunity and privilege to speak with a number of people about these issues and others. I have learned from these conversations, shared experiences and impressions of those experiences. A partnership of trading experiences, understandings, thoughts, and feelings. I have given and received, a fair trade.
I’ve received emails and phone calls from people after posting my first letter to the fair trade movement. It has been suggested to me that I should be more of a leader in the fair trade movement. I believe I am doing just that. I’m sorry you disagree. I’ve been asked where I think I get my authority from. I responded that I don’t think of myself as having “authority”. I suppose though, if I was in a sarcastic mood, I could ask you the same question. I might even suggest that authority is ascribed, it cannot be assumed. But, now that I think of it, maybe that isn’t entirely true, or at least it isn’t a full explication of the issue. Anyway. There is a quote I like that goes something like authority isn’t truth, truth is authority. I don’t know who the original quote comes from. I’m sure, like most things, many people have had the same or similar thoughts, as is the case with Fair Trade.
PS – If you’ve got the time, might I suggest you read the comments made by Patrick Clark to my first letter to the fair trade movement. Especially the answer he gave to question 6. His question to the fair trade movement is great, as well: “How does FLO and subsidiaries define solidarity?”
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