“It’s easy to certify things; it’s much harder to lift people out of poverty. We have to keep asking questions.”
With that dose of realism, Dr. Gavin Fridell stirred up the crowd during the opening plenary of the 5th annual Canadian Fair Trade Network conference in downtown Halifax. Setting the tone for the next three days, Fridell’s honest assessments of fair trade threaded through the discussion all weekend.
The CFTN Conference, held in a different city every year, draws students, academics, fair trade businesses, volunteers, municipal workers, and activists together to Learn, Share, and Connect. Promisingly, I met many people attending for the first time – including many high school and university students. They were curious about how to make a difference, how to get more involved, and how to help make fair trade mainstream.
Still, Fridell’s unvarnished look at the movement echoed throughout the conference. The big questions were ever-present: What is the goal of the fair trade movement? Is what we’re doing having the intended effect? If not, why are we doing it? How are we measuring success?
Different answers to these questions have led to a proliferation of competing fair trade certifications. In Canada, you can find products or organizations bearing the logos of Fairtrade International, Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade Federation, Fair for Life, Small Producers, Rainforest Alliance, and the World Fair Trade Organization. All these labeling organizations are providing an alternative to conventional trade, though it can be difficult as a shopper to figure out which ones best align with your values. Each labeling organization has a different emphasis, and some even have their own definitions of fair trade (as a general rule, we’d recommend labels whose definitions of fair trade go beyond just price paid).
At the same time, large organizations that deal in commodities (primarily coffee and chocolate) are developing and marketing their own self-regulated ‘fair trade’ alternatives. These alternatives require no third-party audit, no transparency, and do not adhere to the Charter of Fair Trade principles, the governing document co-signed by the WFTO and Fairtrade International. But these products share the supermarket shelf with ones that have undergone lengthy, and costly, certification processes. As a consumer, it’s almost impossible to keep it all straight. Initially designed to instill trust, competing fair trade logos are beginning to make ethical shopping more confusing – not less.
Another issue facing fair trade right now on a global scale is that, despite good intentions, the market for fair trade products isn’t big enough for all the people who want to grow or produce fair trade commodities. There’s simply an oversupply. Demand for fair trade is growing steadily, but the number of producers getting certified by the regulating bodies has exploded. This is ultimately good – the certification process, though time consuming and expensive, is voluntary, and the commitment by producers to improve working conditions is encouraging. Still, the discrepancy remains.
To illustrate this, James Mwai, representing Fairtrade Africa at the Conference in Halifax, explained that a fair trade certified coffee producer in Africa may be shocked to find that he can only sell, at best, 30% of his beans at a fair trade price. There just aren’t enough buyers willing to pay the premium – so the rest is sold as conventional coffee, at a conventional coffee price. As a result, that farmer is only 30% of the way to an annual fair salary, but has to deal with new costs, audits, and standards.
Recognizing some of these inherent issues, Ten Thousand Villages (and our coffee, tea, and dried fruit partner, Level Ground Trading) instead choose to emphasize the fair trading relationships we have with our producers, rather than a specific marque or logo. For Level Ground, that means being completely transparent about how much they pay for coffee beans, while continuing to visit farmers and processing facilities regularly. With this hands-on approach, they aim to provide all the benefits of fair trade, without imposing many of the added costs. Level Ground knows that for this to be possible, they need the trust of customers. This trust takes time to build – making this approach a complicated one for newcomers to navigate.
You may or may not know that Ten Thousand Villages Canada is a WFTO Member organization, and many of our maker partners are too. But for us, the most important thing is to make a measurable impact through long-term trading relationships. We are committed to working with the same partners, so the makers can save and invest money, send their kids to school, and plan for the future. Fair trade is all we do – it’s not just a marketing tool. In a very real way, our success is built on having the trust of our customers.
In Halifax, it was good to learn, debate, and celebrate the state of fair trade in Canada in 2017, because the difference Ten Thousand Villages makes can be hard to measure day to day or month to month. But we’ve been at this long enough now that we’ve seen the children of makers go to school to become doctors. We’ve seen children return from business school to take over their parents’ fair trade businesses. We’ve seen long-time makers be able to retire to houses they’ve built for themselves with the money they’ve earned from fair trade, houses that would have been completely out of reach otherwise. We are dedicated to sharing these stories with you. For all of these reasons and a thousand more, we thank our customers for their commitment to the fair trade mission of Ten Thousand Villages.