Gone are the days when fair trade goods were available only at charity shops and church bazaars. Fair trade – or Fairtrade, as it has branded itself – is now big business.You can choose Fairtrade coffee in high-street outlets like Starbucks and PrÃªt a Manger, and local authorities are starting to declare themselves Fairtrade councils. More than 1,000 products are now certified as Fairtrade in the UK and, on an international level, the industry estimates it benefits five million producers worldwide.
Yet with multinationals moving to cash in, and supermarkets approaching fair trade (with or without the Fairtrade Foundation certification mark) as just another niche market, can it avoid being co-opted by the market system it was set up to challenge?
The idea of fair trade has been around since at least the 1950s. Originally called ‘alternative trade’, and dealing not in foodstuffs but in crafts, it was pioneered by Mennonites in North America and Oxfam in Britain.The first certification label, Max Havelaar, was launched in the Netherlands in 1988; and, since 1997, the Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International has sought to establish common guarantees of ‘fairness’.
For instance, in the case of products from small farmers, importers must agree to trade directly with producers’ co-operatives, cutting out middlemen.They must also demonstrate a long-term commitment to the producers and guarantee a minimum price no matter the fluctuations of the market.This price must allow the producers to cover their costs and meet their daily needs.The producers’ co-operatives themselves must also demonstrate that they are democratically managed and their agriculture is sustainable. Only if all these conditions are satisfied is a product permitted to carry the Fairtrade mark.
The aftermath of the December 1999 Seattle protests against the WTO saw Fairtrade coffee consumption skyrocket in the US.Yet this was not the ‘hidden hand of the market’ at work as demand for Fairtrade products increased supply. In fact, it was mainly down to the direct intervention of activists, specifically San Francisco-based Global Exchange, which launched a campaign to persuade Starbucks to offer Fairtrade coffee at all of its 2,300 US outlets.
With peaceful protests for Fairtrade outside its stores to add to the public relations catastrophe it had suffered as the bogeyman of the anti-capitalist movement, Starbucks soon capitulated. Since then, big food corporations have started to see limited forays into Fairtrade as a useful PR move, similar to what environmentalists call ‘greenwash’. McDonalds recently announced it would serve Fairtrade coffee in 650 of its US east coast stores; and NestlÃ©, which for years has derided Fairtrade for violating ‘free-trade principles’, launched its own ‘Partners Blend’ last October.
The NestlÃ© decision caused an understandable furore, with critics arguing that NestlÃ©’s application should have been turned down to prevent the false impression that the widely-boycotted company was now an ethical choice. As one of the world’s largest coffee retailers, NestlÃ© has been directly responsible for paying the kind of low prices that make Fairtrade such a necessity. The World Development Movement, which helped set up the Fairtrade Foundation, was more than a little concerned, saying: “If NestlÃ© really believes in Fairtrade coffee, it will alter its business practices and lobbying strategies and radically overhaul its business to ensure that all coffee farmers get a fair return for their efforts. Until then NestlÃ© will remain part of the problem, not the solution.”
Yet for Harriet Lamb, of the Fairtrade Foundation, the decision is a ‘turning point’. “Here is a major multinational listening to people and giving them what they want – a Fairtrade product,” she says. Justifying the NestlÃ© decision, the Foundation refers to the recent slump in prices on the world coffee market, which has led to undoubted hardship, but speaks almost as though ‘the market’ is a natural phenomenon over which major multinationals such as NestlÃ© have no power.
For many of the originators of Fairtrade, the aim was not just to create a successful niche market but to lay the basis for an alternative system of trade altogether. While some of these ‘alternative trading organisations are little different from conventional companies, others, such as Equal Exchange in the US, reflect this more radical aspiration in their own structures by being workers’ co-operatives.
Yet all of them at least apply fair trade principles to everything they do, unlike the multinationals who are now entering the market. That’s why the International Fair Trade Association has launched a ‘Fair Trade Organisation’ label that certifies the company rather than the product, and is therefore a much more reliable indicator. These organisations face difficult decisions when it comes to distributing their products, as supermarkets become increasingly hard to avoid. Tesco now takes one pound in every eight spent by UK consumers and other chains are doing everything they can to catch up; pushing down prices by squeezing producers and buying up local competition in the grocery market. Even the most political of fair trade organisations have turned to supermarkets to maximise the good that selling their product is doing. Yet by courting the supermarkets, they are strengthening the very companies that are undermining the bargaining power of producers.
This is not the only dilemma that the Fairtrade label throws up.While products such as coffee require democratic producers’ co-operatives to qualify for certification, traditional plantations can also qualify if they meet minimum standards of pay and conditions. And while trade unions must be allowed under Fairtrade rules, they are not required for certification. Some do have strong unions, and the Fairtrade Foundation highlights the instance of two Kenyan rose farms, where certification was followed by recognition of the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers’ Union.
On the other hand, the central American banana workers’ federation COLSIBA has levelled accusations of the ‘systematic violation of workers’ and union rights’ by plantation owners who benefit from Fairtrade.While the TUC and British trade unions have been generally supportive of Fairtrade, they have also pointed out that trade union organisation can be a better guarantee of workers’ rights.
Meanwhile, Marks and Spencer has just launched lines of Fairtrade cotton socks and t-shirts.When they see the Fairtrade label, most consumers would assume they were buying a wholly ethical product.Yet it is only the cotton itself that has been certified, with no guarantees about conditions where the clothes were manufactured.These kinds of problems only serve to highlight the extent to which Fairtrade is merely fiddling at the edges of an international system that perpetuates huge inequalities of power and wealth.
More radical alternatives do exist. Coffee grown in the Zapatistas’autonomous zones’ in Chiapas, Mexico, can now be bought from activists involved in the social centre movement in Britain, while the Working World Market is offering the products of Argentina’s worker-run factories to north American consumers. These initiatives stand in a tradition that saw activists in the 1980s sell Nicaraguan coffee in solidarity with the Sandinista revolution. What marks these projects out is that they aim to support people who have to some degree broken with the logic of the capitalist market. Zaytoun, which imports Palestinian olive oil to Britain to help break the economic stranglehold of the Israeli occupation, could also be seen as ‘solidarity fair trade’, even if its objectives are more about the occupation than about trade itself.
Trade as solidarity is an attractive concept, but its usefulness may be limited to quite specific political situations.The Movimento Sem Terra (MST) is Latin America’s largest social movement, organising landless rural workers and urban slum dwellers to occupy and cultivate unused land. Its innovative and highly effective tactics (it has settled 580,000 families) have won admirers across the world and it would surely have a ready-made market for a very political form of Fairtrade-endorsed products. Yet its concern has always been with feeding Brazil’s population, and the MST specifically rejects the export-led agribusiness model, encouraging mixedcropping rather than the monoculture required by international markets (see box). For them and other organisations in the global peasants’ coalition,Via Campesina, this concept of ‘food sovereignty’ is much more relevant than Fairtrade.
MST activist Marcelo JoÃ£o Alvares was a guest at War on Want’s annual conference in the UK in February, and gave us his personal take on Fairtrade.
‘For Brazilians, Fairtrade is a distant concept. There are so many people living in shanty towns, so many street children; people don’t even have their basic rights to food and shelter. For the MST, feeding Brazilians is our priority, so certification has not even been discussed, not least because we see quality food not as a niche market, but as something we should provide as part of a wider strategy of food sovereignty. This requires policies that work to guarantee people freedom to produce their own quality food with respect to their own culture. We aren’t opposed to exports, but we don’t agree with the agribusiness model of valuing exports over the needs of domestic consumption. Primarily, food sovereignty is about feeding the people.’
The current popularity of Fairtrade is a sign of a growing understanding of the fundamental unfairness of global trade, but it risks being reduced to a branding exercise for multinationals – or, at best, a set of niche products that helps a small minority of producers but fails to affect the structure of the market as a whole.Yet if Fairtrade is embedded in a wider critique of the market, and is part of a movement of real solidarity with the global South, it still holds the potential to help us move towards a fundamentally different global economy.While we might continue to buy Fairtrade products where we can, it is not as consumers that we can determine the future direction of Fairtrade, but as activists building opposition to neoliberalism and corporate control.