Unfair Fairtrade

 New Orleans               ACORN International released a hard-hitting report that was the result of extensive research during the summer, largely conducted by Melanie Craxton, an economics major at the University of Edinburg, interning in the New Orleans headquarters.   Because of our partnership with COMUCAP, the women’s coffee and aloe vera growing cooperative in Marcala, Honduras, and our new relationship with Fair Grinds Coffeehouse (www.fairgrinds.com), the oldest fair-trade only establishment in New Orleans, which has made support of ACORN International’s Central and South American organizing a major priority, we have become increasingly knowledgeable of the curious and contradictory world of fair trade certification by the global agency formed for this purpose, Fairtrade (FLO), based in Germany.

The report, “Unfair Fairtrade,” was released yesterday on the ACORN International website (www.acorninternational.org) and asks some tough questions about the contradictions and inconsistencies involved in the Fairtrade organization.  The mission and purpose of Fairtrade were exemplary.  Founders came together to unite cooperatives of developing world producers in a process that would yield them a better market price for their crops by allowing consumers to know that common standards and guarantees existed.

Over the years though the costs have grown and in many cases neither consumers nor producers seem to have ended up where either one of them hoped to be in these transactions.  ACORN International in a meeting last summer with the best of the national Fairtrade affiliates in Canada found that our own partners, COMUCAP, both could become the first or one of the first aloe vera certified organizations and were somehow suspended.  In the burgeoning bureaucracy that many now believe characterizes, the Fairtrade organization, even with the intervention of our Canadian friends, COMUCAP has been stuck in this stalemate status, likely because of delay in paying the significant fees required to maintain their status.  Is their coffee somehow less fair trade now?  Less organic?  Are the members of the cooperative less dependent on the sales through COMUCAP?  The answer is “no,” to all of those questions, but stuck they remain.  Our research found that they are not alone, and in fact this is a common problem.

The longstanding controversy perhaps best demonstrated by the USA affiliate has now boiled over with the USA outfit leaving the Fairtrade “club.”  And, not necessarily for good reasons!  The USA group had already been seen as somewhat rouge, because of the fair trade green-washing they had been willing to give to various big coffee outlets in order to increase market share (which helps their bottom line) even when the impact in the fields was marginal or worse.  It is no wonder that Rainforest Action Network, Starbucks, Green Mountain Coffee, and others have simply created their own “brands” for fair trade, further muddling the market and confusing consumers.

None of this is good and all of it should raise red flags in the progressive community and among consumers.  ACORN International affiliates in our dozen countries and our partners are right in the thick of this, so we once again are asking the hard questions of some sacred cows in hopes that we can help trigger a dialogue that finally achieves the great mission of these organizations and fair trade and brings us back on track.


1 thought on “Unfair Fairtrade

  1. It’s not necessary for a product to be certified ‘Fairtrade’ to be actually an example of fairer trade.  My biggest criticism of Fairtrade is the lack of information with each product, such as who made or farmed it, under what conditions, and for what daily pay?  And as far as I understand, Third World farmers have to pay for ‘Fairtrade’ accreditation, meaning that the smaller, poorer farms cannot afford to get ‘Fairtrade’ approval, even though they tick all the right boxes.
     We were the first to import ethically sourced coffee to the UK back in 1976. It was years before Fairtrade started… But we created a stir when we imported almost 3 tonnes of instant coffee from Tanzania to the UK to help support manufacturing in the Third World. Our labelling was unique, and featured a photo of a pile of coins, showing who-got-what for the price of a jar of coffee. With the coffee came a booklet called, “The World In Your Coffee Cup.”  We provided sufficient reading material to last several cups of coffee!   Last month BBC radio interviewed me about our pioneering ‘Campaign Coffee’, that helped to start the idea of ethically sourced coffee in Great Britain. The broadcast is now available on YouTube (4 minutes):

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