Fair Trade USA: selling out the global movement

Post by former CYH blog team member Jannie.


The global fair trade movement has been shaken by the recent split of Fair Trade USA from its umbrella Fairtrade International – and correspondingly the global fair trade system. As the leading fair trade certifier in the US, Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA) will now create its own criteria for what merits “fair” trade, including the controversial certification of coffee and cocoa plantations. This, among other questionably lax certification requirements, has provoked outcry and condemnation globally. Organizations including Latin American and Caribbean Network of Small Fair Trade Producers, Red Café, and United Students for Fair Trade have all withdrawn their support of Fair Trade USA, stating that its new vision of expansion “threatens the empowerment, development and self-management of small organized producers” with which fair trade may “.”

The fair trade movement was born out of a vision for a more equitable world – a world that values democratic organization, challenges the imbalance of power in trading relationships between the Global North and South, and promotes solidarity between Northern consumers and Southern producers. Fair trade aims to support and strengthen small-scale farmers against the growing power of multinational corporations, more appropriately valuing farmers for their products and labor. The labeling criteria set by global bodies such as Fairtrade International are a way to ensure that fair trade is moving towards this vision.

Fair Trade USA’s diluted standards are in blatant contradiction of the fundamental values of fair trade. Re-branding under the strategy “Fair Trade for All,” it aims to double the volume of Fair Trade-certified goods imported in the US by 2015. This objective is problematic as the challenge of growing the fair trade market is one of demand, not supply. In coffee, for example, fair trade producer organizations can only sell about 30% of their production on fair trade markets due to insufficient demand in the North. Moreover, Fair Trade USA openly embraces large retailers and national chains, stating that it will not attempt to monitor a company’s broader business practices. By turning a blind eye to the role of these actors in propagating inequitable trading structures, Fair Trade USA is, in effect, undermining the central pillar of the fair trade movement.

Instead, the new language of Fair Trade USA is steeped in patronizing appeals to charity and aid: “we teach disadvantaged communities how to use the free market to their advantage” and help alleviate poverty in farming communities. Worse, it calls on consumers to adopt the “Fair Trade Lifestyle,” selling Fair Trade as another commodity on store shelves.

The deplorable actions of Fair Trade USA are compromising the image and integrity of the fair trade movement. Nevertheless, a critical tenet of fair trade is to encourage Northern consumers to learn more about where their food comes from and make informed choices about how they consume. This needs to be emphasized now more than ever. Rather than discounting fair trade as a whole, this underlines the importance of doing our research and supporting the organizations and businesses that are upholding the core values of the movement.

See this article for an interesting and critical perspective of the fair trade movement.