activist notes

Second letter to the fair trade movement by activistnotes
April 24, 2008, 11:12 pm
Filed under: Fair Trade, Politics | Tags: , , ,

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:


(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?”


5 Comments so far
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While I’m 100% in favour of open dialogue, it sounds like I’m starting to agree with some of the critics of your first letter.

Open dialogue is one thing, Ian, but you’re making (or at least implying) conclusions about Fair Trade in areas where you have no experience.

Moreover, the language you’re using comes across more damning of Fair Trade than anything close to constructive dialogue.

There are two things that bother me about this:

First, your argument/diatribe seems based on little more than conjecture and a rejection of language that’s sometimes used by FLO, FINE, or other Fair Trade “authorities”.

You’re ascribing a particular symbolism (implied or institutional paternalism) to the language, and reacting to it as though the symbolism were fact (Truth).

In the interests of transparency, you should disclose your actual experience with the producer side of Fair Trade. In my opinion, this forum and your language afford you with more authority on this subject than is legitimate.

Second, you’re being incredibly paternalistic yourself. You haven’t once acknowledged the power of the producer organizations within FLO. Instead you’ve portrayed farmers as hapless victims who’ve been completely shut out.

I agree with you completely in that producers should be present at all levels of standard setting, (maybe) monitoring, communications, etc. I think they should have at least as much influence as businesses on the consumption side of the supply chain.

But though producers haven’t had the institutional influence over the system that they’d have liked for some time, they do have real power through their control over supply and the possibility of creating an alternative to the existing Fair Trade system.

The producer groups are becoming increasingly organized (from what I could tell the last time I checked), and they are exercising the power that comes along with that. That they haven’t set up an alternative is telling for me, especially since they could have and I know it’s been discussed.

Producers are not helpless in the system, and any argument based strictly on the semantics of communications from FLO is fallacious.

You really need to contextualize your comments if you’re going to keep this up on a public forum, Ian. Otherwise, you’re just being slanderous.

Comment by Michael Zelmer

Oh hail great leader and thank you for raising this most provocative dialogue! I too am looking forward to exploring the messiness of ‘fair trade’ at Congress!

Comment by Debbie Dergousoff

The entire discussion on what is Fair Trade and how it should be oriented for the futur is a relevent discussion in the current era of Fair Trade growth, be it in Canada or anywhere else in the world.

However, I believe and so do many other actors, that the discussion should not be on discussing the Fine definition, which I believe is the real basis for building on, but rather on the issue of cohesion of the FT actors.
These actors are as diverse as Producers Certifiers, Monitoring agencies, FT NGOs and promotion organisation;but not private bussiness(unless their status reflect proper support for FT or a social cause related to FT).

The point that I am trying to make is that the Fine Definition, is the best definition which relate to the North-South link and the objective of working with marginalised producers. The discussion at Fair Trade Canada, and all of its actors, should not be on changing the definition, rather it should focus on creating a governance mecanism, in order to create coherence of action for all actors. There should not be ample focus on conflict but rather on similarities of FT actors. The objective is to built consensus and reduce difference. The more we try to create conflict on issues that have already been resolved, such as the Fine definition, we are weakening the movement, by creating divergences.

I wish everybody to think of the situation that the economics system as a great ability to absorb anything alternative to it. Thus, if we want to be able to resist in the years to come we need not argue on a definition which was elaborate by consensus between some of the leader organisations in the FT mouvement, and this long before some of us became involve in FT.

If we do not want the FT mouvement to become a new tool of the capitaliste system, as did Che Guevara on T-Shirts, we should ask our selves what can we do not to create a fracture in the FT mouvement. A fracture that can be used by the economic system, to fracture us even more.

As for leadership, I believe that it will be defined in time, and that many people will be involved in it, thru different periods and proposal.

best regards

Comment by Charles Roberge


You’re right, I haven’t written about producers’ power. But, I don’t agree with you that I’ve presented producers as hapless victims or helpless within the certification system. The fact you feel that way has given me occasion to re-assess what I have written, and I’ve re-read the two letters several times over the last day. Other readers of the texts don’t feel the same, I should say, but since you do please know I have thought a lot about why that is.

By the way, Alternative Grounds is organizing a speaker’s kitchen event with a rep from a Peruvian coffee coop at their cafe in Toronto on May 7th at 7PM on many of the issues I’ve written about in these letters. People are concerned. It ain’t just me. Maybe the tone of my letters could have been “more appropriate”. Fine.

It was incredible to watch producers organize a campaign against FLO to push for an increase in the floor price a year or so ago, and to organize to have the governance structure of FLO changed to include producers on the board (which finally happened in May 2007, if memory serves me correctly). You might remember, I don’t know who else reading this will, that I sent info about the floor price campaign through a couple CDN and US Fair Trade listservs at the height of the campaign. Info I couldn’t possibly have known unless I was told it by someone or someones on the inside of that producer organizing. It is obvious to see these major changes happen and conclude producers can organize themselves just fine. And if it makes strategic sense to them to send some info to someone like me to pass on, they will and have, and can make that decision themselves. Yes, the producer networks did discuss setting up an alternative to FLO, but, in my opinion / understanding of the organizing process, this was only done in a political positioning move to engage FLO in discussions where producers wanted to see certain ends achieved. It was a strong move on their part, and it was effective. It certainly showed producers’ level of organization and power within the system.

I don’t agree that I’ve been parternalistic toward producers in these letters, and I didn’t agree when you said Amanda Wilson was being paternalistic in her post a while back ( ). You have made me think, a lot, though – not only in your various responses in this social forum, but over the years. I take your point about contextualization. Thank you.

And, no, I don’t plan on keeping this up – writing letters to the movement, that is. I didn’t plan to write a second one, to be honest.

I suppose I could respond to Charles about co-optation of Fair Trade by multi-nationals, but I’ll leave that for our phone conversation this week. It’s supper time. 🙂


Comment by activistnotes

I just want to take a bit of an exception to the idea that a living wage is too difficult to define. If you can make a budget and keep track of your money then you can find a reasonable number or range for a living wage. People seem comfortable using the term “poverty line” yet somehow often not “living wage”. Presumably the idea of a living wage is also where the idea of a minimum wage is -supposed- to stem from.

Obviously it is different in different areas but I think with proper research and connections to people that live in the area there is no reason one couldn’t put a number or reasonable range on what a living wage is. The Worker’s Rights Consortium has a few examples of living wage calculations on their website:

I don’t like it when people take an attitude that living wages are just too hard to predict. I think people use this as a stalling tactic and we see that when asking Universities to sign onto the Designated Supplier’s Program in No Sweat work.

Comment by James Douglas

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