New Orleans Fairtrade has a language problem that is quickly becoming a huge commercial and consumer problem. There’s no copy write to the name “fairtrade,” so like it or not, anyone can use it, claim it, or con with it. As a relatively new movement trying to build commercial strength and consumer identification, a “classic” understanding of what fairtrade is and means only dates back several decades, so full on assault and, more worrisome, corporatization, of the concept along with increased commercial usurpation could have the impact of knocking the socks off of what might still be fairly called the “fairtrade movement.”
As we prepare to have a large meeting at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in several weeks (Tuesday, September 18th at 7pm if you are in New Orleans!) to discuss “Fairtrade and the Port of New Orleans,” this is all very worrisome. On one hand we are trying to get our community to embrace fairtrade and on the other large, powerful forces have significant economic investments in confusing consumers. The Nation in a September 10th piece by Scott Sherman painfully entitled, “Brawl Over Fair Trade Coffee,” does a good job of putting the internal schism within the fairtrade movement and the external corporate predation before the readers.
Once again, here is the back story, friends. There are internationally agreed upon fairtrade certification standards for coffee and similar products. In the case of coffee, the requirements of production by close to 400 coffee growing producer cooperatives, largely in Latin America, which are regularly inspected, pay the fees, and then receive a premium for doing so that is roughly $0.50 above the quoted price on the New York commodities exchange. FLO, the Fairtrade Licensing Organization from Bonn, Germany runs the certification operation and has for years with a number of country affiliates largely in Europe and North America. In a small version of a Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes kind of divorce, Fair Trade USA, the American affiliate, pulled out of the international relationship to go on its own, bringing the whole mess front and center and displaying in full force the ideological and commercial disagreements within the fairtrade movement.
Once the name-calling is taken out of the dispute, the heart of the matter is that Paul Rice and his USA Fair Trade operation want to be able to certify coffee plantations and single producers, rather than cooperatives. There are no virgins here. FLO, the international body, already certifies plantations in tea production for example. The 800 pound gorilla of coffee, Starbucks, “certifies” its own coffee purchases and claims the “fairtrade” mantle in its advertisements, which is a little like Wal-Mart self-certifying its subcontractor work standards! Among progressives there is also confusion such as Just Coffee direct trade certifications in protest to what they, probably correctly, view as lax certification standards for roasters. Did I mention that this was a mess?
Sherman catches the heart of the beast well:
Fair trade coffee has been a valuable experiment, one that has brought concrete benefits to hundreds of thousands of farmers. But it rests upon a fragile foundation, and the corporate embrace of the concept could undo decades of work by activists, consumers and farmers: democratically run, farmer-owned cooperatives may be unable to compete with corporate-sponsored plantations. “The fair trade model provided some protection from the unequal conditions of the open market,” says Nicki Lisa Cole, a sociologist at Pomona College who has studied fair trade. Welcoming large-scale plantations into the model “re-creates the problematic conditions for small producers that spurred creation of the model in the first place.”
Rice for his part argues opening the door to more commercialization and bigger producers is part of “innovation.” He cites Apple as an example, but since all of us are so fresh from the Apple scandals with FoxConn and all of its offshore, largely Chinese subcontractors, it is hard to embrace this model as any other than exploitation, and certainly not innovation.
All of this leaves the US movement in a shambles. The excellent Canadian fair trade organization is essentially managing all of North America now. In working with a growers’ cooperative in Honduras that produces aloe vera, we have been bounced from the Canadian organization to the Swedish fairtrade affiliate in our negotiations with a cosmetic company that wants to go fairtrade and organic, because no one has time for anything much other than the American mess.
And, the consumers? Anarchy will not produce more fairtrade purchases. “Looking for the label” could mean asking a consumer to pick between Rain Forest Action certification, Catholic Relief Service certification, corporate self-certification and branding (Starbucks and friends), and not one but two competing outfits claiming to certify for United States consumers.
The producers will be hurt by this chaos, if not permanently crippled. Purveyors like Fair Grinds will end up continuing to pay market premiums for our beans with customers drinking “great coffee for a change” out of trust more than understanding.
This is no way to run a railroad or a social movement.