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To Tell the Truth: Who Owns Fair Trade?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Fair Trade page.


When TransFair USA announced last fall that it was changing its name to Fair Trade USA, an immediate and on-going tsunami of outrage and indignation burst through the Fair Trade community. Alternative Trade Organizations, 100% Fair Trade roasters, student, religious, and consumer activists, and non-profit organizations, all of whom have dedicated themselves to the difficult but critically important work of building market access for small farmers across the globe, were affronted. How could any single organization, a certifying agency no less, claim the name Fair Trade? Fair Trade is a concept, a way of doing business, a value system, an entire movement built through the convictions and hard work of hundreds of thousands of individuals across the globe. Can one organization simply appropriate all that "Fair Trade" signifies, and claim it for itself?

Reactions to the announcement have differed, but mainly span from disappointment to anger. Some are dismayed that TransFair would undertake such a divisive move, thereby attracting bad publicity and potentially hurting those for whom Fair Trade is most supposed to benefit. Others are more indignant, seeing this step as one more in a long line of "corporate-like attitudes and behaviors" that blatantly disregard and steamroll over the legitimate concerns of others in the movement.  Still others give TransFair credit for devising such a bold marketing move: just when your organization is encountering growing public relations challenges, rebrand yourselves so that the average consumer makes the assumption that your organization and Fair Trade are one and the same.

It is interesting that the move comes at a time when criticism of TransFair's approach and its actions has never been higher. In fact, the name change coincides with the recent decision this past year of many organizations, including Equal Exchange, to drop the use of the TransFair logo on fairly traded products, in favor of the IMO (Institute of Market Ecology) "Fair for Life" certification. Not only does the departure of many of the original "100% Fair Traders" signal growing discontent with TransFair, but since companies must pay each time they use the TransFair logo on a product, discontinuing use of their seal also carries financial impact.  For the first time, companies finally have a choice between Fair Trade certifications. It is no wonder that TransFair took this moment to try and become Fair Trade USA.


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