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Organic Consumers Association

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Fairness for Farmers—Consumers Hold the Key

Not all fair-trade certification labels are created equal, according to a new report by the Fair World Project (FWP). The report breaks down the various definitions of the most common fair-trade certifications, and the role verification programs play in the global fair trade movement.

“Fairness for Farmers: A Report Assessing the Fair Trade Movement and the Role of Certification,” identifies the fundamental differences between six fair trade product labels. It also emphasizes the importance of purchasing fair-trade certified products to ensure farmer fairness and to combat power imbalances often seen within global supply chains. The report states:

Small-scale farmers face many threats including land grabbing, unfair trade agreements, lack of government and technical support, low and volatile prices, uneven wealth distribution, corporate control of the food system, and climate change.

Global trade favors those already in power—businesses, governments, and the largest players at any stage of the supply chain whether large-scale farms, factory owners, or mega-corporations. In conventional supply chains, producers—the bottom of the chain—generally lack negotiating power and small-scale producers are further marginalized within the production sector since they are competing against bigger and better-resourced producers.

Fair trade, a concept that first began in the U.S. and dates back to the mid-1900s, aims to shift the balance of power in supply chains by empowering small-scale farmers and producers and connecting them to markets that support consumer demand for ethically produced products.

In an effort to learn more about how consumers can support small-scale farmers, we caught up with Anna Canning, the communications manager for FWP. She answered the following questions for us via email.

Why is it important for consumers to choose fair-trade certified products?

Fair trade supports small-scale farmers, empowering them, giving them the means to invest in their communities, and in their farms. For people who care about organic food, I’d say it’s extra important to choose fair trade. Fifty-six percent of fair trade farmers are also certified organic, and fair trade prices include an extra premium to support the additional work that goes into organic production.

You can think about fair trade as a way to make sure farmers are paid more to farm in a way that protects the environment. So many people think that fair trade is just a fair price for products. A fair price is important, but fair trade standards also include prohibitions against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and guidelines for empowering women, preventing child labor and fostering democratic institutions.

Fair trade offers a model for companies who want to treat the people who grow, produce and process the food they sell as business partners.

What are the most important factors for consumers to consider when researching fair-trade certifications and standards?

I think it’s really important to look for certifications (and companies) that prioritize small-scale farmers. That means including them in defining and implementing what “fair” means for them—it’s a simple concept that we would want applied to our own work, but one that is too often forgotten in this context.

We know that around the world (and here in the U.S. too), small-scale farmers are often marginalized. They lack support. But small-scale farmers are the ones stewarding the land and using the kinds of regenerative, organic farming techniques that we know hold so much promise for the future of farming and feeding the world.

Fair World Project’s “Fairness for Farmers” report found major differences in the standards of the six fair-trade product labels. Can you tell us what some of those differences are and why they’re significant to consumers?

Some of the biggest differences we found include: 

- Requirements for democratic structures (including cooperatives and other farmer-led associations)

- Prioritization of most marginalized producers

- Policies to prevent “fairwashing,” such as use of the label by companies with active human rights abuses

- Involvement of intended beneficiaries in defining what constitutes “fair” and setting minimum prices—as well as what those prices are

These points might sound like academic distinctions, but they’re a big deal. This is the difference in who holds power in the food system—do we want a food system that’s run by and for corporate profits? Or do we want one where those of us who buy our food are choosing to act in solidarity with the people who grew it, even if they’re thousands of miles away?

What’s the single biggest take-away from the “Fairness for Farmers” report?

For me, the single biggest take-away from all that went into this report is this: We need to do more.

Seventy-two percent of coffee that’s grown by fair-trade certified farmers can’t find a fair trade buyer. For cocoa farmers, that’s 67 percent. Coffee and cocoa are two of the most widely available, well-known fair-trade products. That means there is plenty of supply available, and there are plenty of amazing, committed fair trade companies who sell those products.

So, for me, the takeaway is that we need to do more.

I would challenge consumers to tackle a few of these things:

- Buying fair trade wherever you can, of course, and encouraging your friends to do the same.

- Write a comment card if you’re at the grocery store and encourage them to drop unfair products and choose only fair trade.

- Look around at your school, workplace, church, etc., and see where you can get them to buy more fair trade.

- Support campaigns like the Campaign for Real Meals, which challenges some of the biggest food service companies to support fair trade and shift the balance of power in the food system.

Our fact sheet that goes with the report helps sum up why fair trade is so important, in a quick, digestible format that’s easy to share with all those new people that you might be telling about fair trade! Find it here.

Julie Wilson is communications associate for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.

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