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Davis, California

Monday, April 22, 2024

The Ethical Wallet: The not-so-fair trade

greenburg_opOn the head of their website, Fair Trade USA boasts the slogan, “Every purchase matters.” It is true: every purchase does matter. But it seems that what we buy and how we choose to buy it may matter more to some than others.

Formerly known as TransFair USA, Fair Trade USA claims to be a nonprofit organization empowering farmers to gain access to fair wages, safe working conditions and the right to organize. As the third-party certifier of Fair Trade products, Fair Trade USA carries quite a significant position in the ethical food market. But how did they get to be so significant? In Fair Trade USA’s description of CEO Paul Rice, reference is made to the launching of their labeling, but not the birth of Fair Trade as an organization.

The original Fair Trade movement focused on democratically organized small farmers and producers. What started in 1986 as a small company called Equal Exchange, grew to join a number of farmers, alternative trade organizations, religious organizations and nonprofits throughout the globe. In order to challenge large plantations, agribusiness and multinational corporations, Equal Exchange became Fair Trade, working to connect consumers and producers in the market for their products.

Hoping to increase customer confidence when choosing products, Fair Trade brought in a third-party certification for products that met their standards: TransFair USA. This organization, founded in 1998, began labeling Fair Trade products in an effort to help consumers make ethical choices without having to do as much research beforehand. The public grew to trust and depend on the label and to this day, many of us choose the Fair Trade USA option when deciding between two similar products at the local market. It’s practically an instinctual form of decision making. We choose these products because we are led to believe they are the best for our health, our economy and our conscience.

Unfortunately, TransFair USA abused the trusting relationship it had developed with customers. Favoring quantity over quality, and in an effort to fulfill the great demand for their Fair Trade products, TransFair USA wanted to increase its supply. The only way to meet this new level of demand was to lower standards and certify companies that previously would not have met the requirements.

This posed a challenge for small farmers, who were originally the focus of Fair Trade. Suddenly, they were up against bigger producers who were cutting corners, paying lower wages to workers and producing much faster than these smaller businesses could manage.

The original Fair Trade objected to these changes in TransFair USA’s policies, and maintained their mission to support small farmers by reinstating the importance of slow and steady growth. The two companies values seemed to grow further apart. In October 2010, TransFair USA changed its name to Fair Trade USA.

A year later in 2011, Fair Trade USA announced “Fair Trade for All,” a new initiative that effectively began to certify large plantations left and right. “Fair Trade for All” frames its mission as an expansion of support, advocating that the inclusion of more farmers in their network will increase empowerment among small businesses. But in reality decreasing standards allow the certification of plantations and an increasingly impossible market for small farmers to succeed in.

Plantations tend to be individually owned for profit, as opposed to smaller farms where there is often equal ownership and more democratic decision making. Advocating for small farmer co-ops encourages a vehicle of change within the food industry, whereas plantation certification and support makes very little impact on economic control, political power or social change.

Because Fair Trade USA knew that the original Fair Traders as well as the International Fair Trade (FLO) would oppose the new standards paired with the initiative, they promptly left FLO and became an independent organization.

Fair Trade versus Fair Trade USA is an example of the many ways in which we as consumers are overfed with commercial options and deprived of facts. Although it is almost 2016, in terms of available food and trade information, it feels as if we are back in the 90’s. Facts are limited, the Fair Trade USA certification is at times reliable and other times not as much. Once again, we are left to our own devices to decide what companies and products we want to support.

Aside from doing my own research, I will be keeping an eye open for the Equal Exchange label, CLAC certifications and Fair Trade International approval when shopping for my products. All of these organizations have remained loyal to the original Fair Trade mission. These are the companies that trade fairly. These are the companies to whom “every purchase matters.”

You can contact Martha Greenburg at mzgreenburg@ucdavis.edu or on Twitter @marthazane94


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