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Is it curtains for Fair Trade?

Fair Trade
United States
Development (Aid)

Driving force: Paul Rice, CEO of FTUSA. Photo: Global X, reproduced under a CC license.

An excellent article by Scott Sherman in The Nation describes in gory detail a ‘brawl’ over fairly traded coffee in the US.

It’s the kind of thing that’s common enough when passions run high – as indeed they must do with fair trade – but this one completes a long cycle that could see fair trade disappear altogether as a significant force for radical change.

In May 2012 Fair Trade USA (FTUSA), the major certification agency in the US, ended its affiliation with Fairtrade International, based in Bonn, Germany, which sets international standards.

FTUSA wants to accredit small ‘independent’ coffee farmers and plantations, which in reality means opening the door to major corporate interests, with sponsorship by the likes of Walmart. Fairtrade International, however, is sticking to its founding principles and accredits only coffee produced by farmers’ co-operatives.

Coffee remains the emblematic fair trade product, so what happens to coffee is likely to happen to fair trade generally. In some respects it is happening already. In 2005 the Fairtrade Foundation – the equivalent of FTUSA in Britain – put its 'fairtrade' label on flowers produced in Kenya for the huge corporate retailer Tesco. By 2009 the label had also been stuck to the corporate food manufacturers Nestlé and Cadbury (now Kraft).

So the principle of corporate involvement has now been established at every stage of international fair trade, from production through manufacturing to retailing – a corporate strategy better known as ‘vertical integration’.

The driving force behind FTUSA’s move appears to be President and CEO Paul Rice. He is a veteran of the revolution in Nicaragua and aggressively unrepentant.

Mass-market coffee blends – sold mostly freeze-dried or roast-and-ground – are created by ‘roastmasters’. These people are, Rice claims, ‘masters of their universe’. They merge or blend the beans’ great natural variety – from place to place and year to year – to produce a consistently uniform taste or ‘experience’. This is what the profitable mass marketing of corporate ‘brands’ demands.

A roastmaster, Rice believes, is never going to be told how to perform his alchemy by ‘some NGO dude who tells him to rejigger his business and re-engineer his blends’. But if his existing corporate plantation suppliers adopt the ‘fairtrade’ label, the volume of fair trade coffee will, according to Rice, expand exponentially to become ‘democratic’ and ‘fair trade for all’.

Leave aside, if you must, the sheer perversity of turning a natural diversity of flavour into a consistently uniform nothingness. Equal Exchange – at the heart of the fair trade movement in the US – and Fairtrade International see their priority as expanding the relatively small proportion of the harvest of their co-operative suppliers that is as yet fairly traded.

Paul Rice claims: ‘Everyone is innovating. Look at Apple... It baffles me that somehow innovation in our movement is unacceptable.’

The question remains: is the principle purpose of fair trade to change world trade; or will world trade change the principles of fair trade?

You might suspect that these principles reflect an exaggerated distaste of everything corporate. True, it was the consequences of corporate control that gave birth to the fair trade movement. True, the ideologues of Nestlé once – and not that long ago – went out of their way to rubbish the very idea of fair trade for offending against the sacred principles of ‘free’ trade. True, there are as yet few signs of the corporate mind, at the World Trade Organization or anywhere else, relinquishing its fundamentalist ‘free’ trade faith.

But to imagine that by adding an insignificant fair-trade ‘niche’ to their capacious portfolios corporations are showing a significant sign of profound change would be fanciful at best. The record suggests that potential threats are embraced only in order to throttle them.

Paradoxically, the growth now cultivated by the likes of FTUSA breeds its very own corporate terminator seeds. The most serious corporate error is to allow your ‘brand’ to be ‘diluted’ or confused. Ferocious machinery in the form of trade-marking, patents and ‘intellectual property’ is installed to prevent this disaster from being perpetrated by trespassers.

You can, however, do it yourself. Losing an argument and making off with the FTUSA label undermines its legitimacy, confuses perceptions and encourages others to follow suit. ‘Dilution’ is scarcely sufficient to describe the likely result. Meanwhile, beleaguered ‘ethical shoppers’ must somehow choose between boycotting Nestlé because of its abuse of baby milk sales or supporting one of its freshly fairtrade-labelled products.

To my mind, fair trade is part of a wider movement for global justice or it is nothing. It is, in essence, a movement of people and ideas, not labels and brands. That movement now faces its most severe test in a radically altering world where corporate (including financial) power is still out to exercise its baleful, secretive influence.

The choice for fair trade is, I think, less between corporate globalization and global justice than between global justice and ceasing to exist at all.

Related blog:  A funny thing happened on the way to (fairtrade) market by Paul Deighton, Fair Trade specialist and merchandise manager at New Internationalist Australia.

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