Caveat Emptor / Buyers Beware the Fair Trade Mess

Community Organizations International Ideas and Issues International

New Orleans               Part of the global dispute that ACORN International highlighted in our recently released report, “Unfair Fairtrade”, burst into the business section of the Times in a weird piece of Thanksgiving celebration.  The issue engaged most directly continued to be the rouge retreat of Fair Trade USA and its chief, Paul Rice, from any pretense of real support for producers to what can only be correctly described as a corporate convenience and branding operation for large companies and their sources.  There can be little doubt that Rice and the US operation are on the wrong side of this dispute and are leading a wholesale assault on any notion of fair trade principles, despite the fact that from our research and report there can be little doubt that some of his criticisms of the Fairtrade International (FLO) and its certification program are also correct.

The terrible truth is that both competing business models are perhaps fatally flawed endangering the survival of the fair trade movement and real values at all.  The slim hope raised at the end of the William Neuman might be found by grasping the straw held out by Seth Goldman of Honest Tea (owned by Coca Cola) who is debating whether to sell certified products from Fair Trade USA or Fairtrade International when he “called the dispute a mess, but added, ‘Opening up a can of worms gives a chance to understand what’s in the can.’”  Perhaps hard looks would force needed change in FLO as well, because right now these continued contradictions are mainly hurting the intended beneficiaries, the producers, while treating the consumers almost as shabbily by abusing their good graces and picking their pockets often without any benefit to producers in the fields. 

When Rice and Fair Trade USA argue they want to start certifying large plantation operations to get more market share of fair trade sales, the producers would no longer be small farmers, but simply wage earning farm workers and the decades of watching what has happened to farm workers and their efforts to unionize and achieve higher standards leave us no room to believe that this will be a happy outcome.  It is also easy to prove since ironically most of the tea that Fairtrade International currently certifies is from the same large plantation operations that Fair Trade USA is now proposing to whitewash for consumers in America.  Having visited tea plantations in India and directly supported unions and strikes for higher wages among tens of thousands of workers around Darjeeling and the many communities around the foothills of the Himalayas, I can personally guarantee you there is nothing fair about this part of the trade and the FLO stamp changes the situation only by the smallest degree.

In that sense Dean Cycon, founder of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee, and a long time supplier for our Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans (and a Katrina hero for his support to the previous owners by supplying free coffee for them to keep hot in the pot for the long rebuilding six years ago) is right he argues:  “Starbucks, Green Mountain and other coffee companies will be able to become 100 percent fair trade not because they’ve changed their business practices one iota but because Fair Trade USA has changed the rules of the game.”  Quite right, but where Dean does not go far enough is that the rules of the fair trade game in fact do need to be changed, not simply to achieve more scale, which is the only correct argument that Rice and Fair Trade USA are making, but to reform FLO so that once again coffee coops and other small producers are benefited rather than trapped in the hopeless and expensive FLO bureaucracy, and consumers can finally get the real deal.

Sadly the best hope in this mess may in fact be for consumers, who really do drive this partnership, to finally understand what is in this can of worms and begin to support something real that defines trade as really fair for both producers and consumers,  rather than the system now which increasingly seems to be too much about corporations and the certifiers themselves.