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Domestic Fair Trade: For Health, Justice & Sustainability

The international Fair Trade movement has gained momentum in recent years, mobilizing millions of people with a message of fairness, equity and environmental stewardship in global trade. Fair Trade, representing a convergence of co-operative, solidarity, and social justice movements, emphasizes commerce as a tool for the empowerment and capacity building of small-scale farmers, artisans and agricultural workers in the global South. For decades Fair Trade Organizations (FTOs) ­ mission-based enterprises based on the principles of fairness, equity, solidarity and community-development ­ have provided concerned consumers in the North the opportunity to link with and support producers in the South through equitable trading relationships. They have also provided a model that trade activists are now using in pressuring mainstream businesses to be more responsible, primarily through certification-based campaigns.

While it wasn't so long ago that the mainstream coffee industry dismissed the principles of Fair Trade as unrealistic, today there are some 400 companies purchasing at least a small portion of their coffee under Fair Trade terms. Other fairly traded products, such as tea, chocolate and fruit that were once available only in community food co-ops and Fair Trade shops, are beginning to show up on supermarket shelves.

Similarly, movements for organic and sustainable agriculture have moved from the margins and into the mainstream of consumer consciousness. Once the domain of small farmers, independent entrepreneurs and natural food co-ops, the organic industry now accounts for $20 billion dollars of global sales, and has attracted many major multinational companies into the marketing of organic products.

While these movements have much to be proud of, the obstacles faced by family farmers and agricultural workers have only become more severe ­ not just in the developing world, but in industrialized countries as well. While most people consider the problems of plantation labor to be an issue exclusive to marginalized economies, recent campaigns by farm labor organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have exposed injustices on "factory farms" in Florida and other parts of the country. Meanwhile, recent press reports have drawn attention to the devastating psychological and social impact of globalization on rural communities in countries such as India, where suicide by small farmers has become a national crisis. Rarely mentioned is the fact that in many countries in the "developed" world, including the US and Canada, suicide is the leading cause of death among farmers.

Clearly something is very wrong with how we grow, process, market and distribute food on a local, regional and global level. As control of agriculture has become more concentrated among an ever-shrinking list of large corporations, small producers around the globe are caught between declining prices for their products, the consolidation of processing, markets and distribution, and tightening control over inputs such as seed. Today, just 10 corporations account for over 50% of the revenue generated globally by food retailing. Not surprisingly, as agribusiness profits have gone up, the share of the consumer dollar received by farming families and farm workers has declined dramatically. And between 1935 and 1997, the total number of farms in the U.S. fell from 6.5 million to just over 2 million. By 2003, there were just 1.9 million working farmers in the U.S. ­ less than the prison population.

Beginning in early 2005, a group of organizations began formal dialogue about the converging interests of family farmers, farm workers, organic advocates and Fair Trade Organizations in domestic agriculture. The initial group included representatives from Wisconsin-based Organic Valley (CROPP Co-operative) and Farmer Direct Co-operative of Saskatchewan, Canada, both farmer co-operatives, and the worker co-operative and FTO Equal Exchange. Meanwhile, the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), a coalition led by RAFI-USA, Peace-Works Organic Farms, CATA  (El Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas), and Quality Certification Services (QCS) had also been working since 1999 to develop standards for fair trade between family-scale farmers and buyers, and just working conditions for workers, interns and children on farms.

A basic premise of the work of all of these organizations has been the equal participation of farmers, farm workers, buyers and consumers. Based on a sense of common ground, an invitation was issued to a wide range of individuals and groups to attend a gathering for the purpose of dialogue on the idea of launching a movement for "Domestic Fair Trade" ­ a movement rooted in the principles of international Fair Trade, but adapted to the concerns of domestic and regional production. The meeting, in August of 2005 at Organic Valley's headquarters in La Farge, WI, brought together Fair Trade Organizations, farmers and farmer co-ops, consumer and worker co-ops, traders and marketers, organic and local agriculture activists, and social justice and workers' rights advocates to explore the concept.

The gathering was a decisive step forward. The group, calling itself the "Domestic Fair Trade Working Group," endorsed the principles of the International Fair Trade Federation (IFAT) as a basis for development of its own guiding principles. The goal of the group was to consciously link the ideals of Fair Trade with those of the international organic and sustainable agricultural movements, and appointed a steering committee to advance this work.

Soon after this first gathering, a draft document was developed and distributed to participants for feedback. Once approved, the principles were distributed to the wider community in an effort to encourage dialogue and action, as a declaration of support for like-minded organizations and individuals, and an invitation to join the working group. The statement, issued in December of 2005, represents the principles of Domestic Fair Trade as envisioned by the working group, guiding its efforts toward building a more socially just, democratically accountable and environmentally sustainable agriculture:

This declaration is our attempt to translate the principles of international Fair Trade, as expressed by organizations such as the International Fair Trade Association (IFAT) and the Fair Trade Federation (FTF), into the regional and local economic spheres. Our primary goals are to support family-scale farming, to reinforce farmer-led initiatives such as farmer co-operatives, to ensure just conditions for those who work in agriculture, to strengthen the organic farming movement, and bring these efforts together with mission-based traders, retailers and concerned consumers to contribute to the movement for a more equitable, diverse and sustainable agriculture in North America. It is our hope that we may help create a more holistic model of commerce that is consistent with the basic values of the international Fair Trade movement, and builds on the values of the organic and sustainable agricultural movements. The principles we present below are not specific standards, but rather represent the values that underlie and guide our work together as organizations and individuals united for the promotion of 'Health, Justice and Sustainability' (see sidebar).

Another priority that was identified at the working group's first gathering was the need for more direct representation of farm labor's interests. With support from RAFI-USA and Oxfam USA, AJP member CATA recruited additional farm worker organizations such as the Farm Workers Support Committee, the Farmer Worker Association of Florida, Community to Community Development and the International Labor Rights Fund. In a special session, representatives from workers' organizations shared their perspectives on the challenges facing their constituents and ways to effectively incorporate their concerns as the group moves forward. Many of the people gathered also expressed interest in emphasizing the manner in which both small farmers and farm workers are threatened by large-scale corporate agriculture, and exploring ways to strengthen their common interests and develop models for co-operation.

A key outcome of the gathering was the decision to create a formal coalition that would include representation of the movement's core stakeholders. An impetus for the convening of the working group was a concern at the manner in which the organic and Fair Trade movements, while dramatically influencing conventional commerce, have been increasingly co-opted by the values and purposes of corporate and multinational interests. Therefore, a primary goal of establishing an organization would be not only to expand the impact of the movement but also to safeguard its principles and ideals. The group also reviewed progress of participants' Fair Trade projects and the development of systems for standards, monitoring and certification. While the development of a consumer seal for approved products is a central goal, the group also wants to be sure that this effort is part of the broader project of building a vibrant, representative and sustainable movement that will ensure the integrity and veracity of any certification label.

As globalization expands, it is becoming clearer that many of the challenges faced by small producers and workers in marginalized regions of the world are similar to those encountered by rural communities in industrialized countries. A response to the global neo-liberal agenda will require a movement that brings small producers, workers, traders and civil society together in a common effort. The Domestic Fair Trade movement is an effort to bring these stakeholders together to create a "movement of movements" for more socially just, democratic and sustainable economic alternatives from the global level down to local communities.

----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- Domestic Fair Trade Working Group: Principles for Health, Justice, and Sustainability

€     Family Scale Farming. Fair Trade focuses on reinforcing the position of small and family-scale producers that have been or are being marginalized by the mainstream marketplace, as a means of preserving the culture of farming and rural communities, promoting economic democracy, environmental and humane stewardship and biodiversity, and ensuring a more healthy and sustainable planet.

€     Capacity Building for Producers and Workers. Fair Trade is a means of developing the producers and workers independence, strengthening their ability to engage directly with the marketplace, and to gain more control over their futures. The resources from trading relationships are directed toward this purpose in a participatory manner by those who will benefit from them.

€     Democratic, Participatory Ownership & Control. Fair Trade emphasizes co-operative organization as a means of empowering producers, workers and consumers to gain more control over their economic and social lives. In situations where such organization is absent, mechanisms will be created to ensure the democratic participation of producers and workers, and the equitable distribution of the fruits of trade.

€     Rights of Labor. Fair Trade means a safe and healthy working environment for producers and workers and conforms to all ILO Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The participation of children (if any) does not adversely affect their well-being, security, educational requirements and need for play and conforms to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as pertinent local/regional laws. Fair Trade ensures that there are mechanisms in place through which hired labor has an independent voice and is included in the benefits of trade through mechanisms such as living wages, profit-sharing, and co-operative workplace structures. Programs of apprenticeship are promoted to develop the skills of the next generation of farmers, artisans and workers.

€     Equality and Opportunity. Fair Trade emphasizes the empowerment of women, minorities, indigenous peoples and other marginalized members of society to represent their own interests, participate directly in trade and to share in its economic benefits.

€     Direct Trade. Where possible, Fair Trade attempts to reduce the intermediaries between the primary producer and the consumer, delivering more of the benefits of such trade to the producer and connecting consumers more directly with the source of their food and other products, and with the people who produced them.

€     Fair & Stable Pricing. A fair price is one that has been agreed upon through dialogue and participation. It covers not only the costs of production but enables production, which is socially just and environmentally sound. It provides fair pay to the producers, fair wages to laborers, and takes into account the principle of equal pay for equal work by women and men. Fair Traders ensure prompt payment and stable pricing that enables producers to plan for the future.

€     Shared Risk & Affordable Credit. Farmers often bear the greatest risks of agriculture and an unstable marketplace. Fair Traders work to share these risks among producers, processors, marketers and consumers through more equitable trade partnerships, fair and prompt payment, transparent relationships and affordable credit. In situations where access to credit is difficult, or the terms of credit are not beneficial to producers, Fair Traders provide or facilitate access to such credit, or assist producers in creating their own mechanisms for providing credit.

€     Long-Term Trade Relationships. Fair Trade fosters long-term trade partnerships at all levels within the production, processing and marketing chain that provide producers with stability and opportunities to develop marketing, production and quality skills, as well as access to new markets for their products.

€     Sustainable Agriculture. Fair Trade emphasizes a holistic approach to agriculture, supporting sustainable agricultural strategies such as Organic, Biodynamic, non-toxic Bio-intensive Integrated Pest Management, farm diversification and small-scale farming that protect the environment, sustain farming communities, and provide consumers with quality, healthy food. Fair Trade emphasizes the biodiversity of traditional agriculture, supports the rights of farmers to their own seed, and preserves cultural diversity.

€     Appropriate Technology. Fair Trade supports the use of traditional technologies, which are openly and freely shared in the public domain, and excludes plants and animals, and biological processes, which have been genetically engineered or modified.

€     Indigenous Peoples' Rights. Fair Trade supports indigenous peoples' rights to land for cultivation, to freely exchange seeds and to retain rights to their germplasm. These rights are congruent with the Convention on Biological Diversity. We fully support the right of all peoples to food sovereignty.

€     Transparency & Accountability. The Fair Trade system depends on transparency of costs, pricing and structures at all levels of the trading system. Fair Traders are accountable to each other and the wider community by openly sharing such information.

€     Education & Advocacy. Fair Trade emphasizes education at all levels of the agricultural chain, engaging farmers, workers, traders and consumers in advocating for a more equitable, democratic and sustainable economy. Fair Traders in particular educate consumers about the inequities of the trading system and the need for alternatives, while sharing information with producers about the marketplace. Education strengthens the Fair Trade movement and empowers its stakeholders in creating a better world for everyone."

----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- Erbin Crowell is a member of Equal Exchange, a worker-owned Fair Trade Organization that markets products from small farmer co-ops, including coffee, tea and cocoa growers. He founded and directed the co-operative's Interfaith Program, an initiative of education, outreach and partnership with communities of faith that has engaged thousands of congregations in Fair Trade advocacy. He now heads Equal Exchange's Domestic Fair Trade Program and can be contacted at Michael Sligh is Just Foods Director at RAFI-USA, a non-profit NGO non-governmental dedicated to justice, equity, diversity and sustainability in agriculture. RAFI-USA is a founding member of the Agricultural Justice Project, which is developing justice standards and a market label for North American organic and sustainable family farmers. For more information on this project contact Michael Sligh at

For more information on the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group, please contact:

Sarah Belfort, Equal Exchange, Jason Freeman, Farmer Direct Co-operative, JJ Richardson, AJP & RAFI-USA, Cecil Wright, Organic Valley / CROPP Co-operative, cecil.wright@organic