TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Defining and Measuring Fair Trade

According to Paul Rice, co-founder of TransFair USA, 20% of Americans know about fair trade and about 10% actively support it by buying fair trade products. The percentage of people aware of and buying fair trade in Europe is much higher.

What exactly is fair trade? In short, fair trade seeks to give producers ownership over their labor by accessing markets directly. Fair trade, also called alternative trade, production also seeks to address environmental and social issues. This approach arose out of a protest against mainstream models that continue to this day where corporations and manufacturers relocated to third world countries seeking the cheapest labor and lowest environmental standards possible. Fair trade organizations believe that by empowering the poor through fair treatment, we all benefit by increased world stability, safer products, and better management of our resources. Fair trade groups include agricultural producers and craft production. Fair trade coffee has achieved the most success in accessing market visibility.

There are several key players in the fair trade movement. Let's take a look at how each of them defines fair trade through their mission statements:

IFAT is the International Fair Trade Association, the global network of Fair Trade Organizations. IFAT’s mission is to enable producers to improve their livelihoods and communities through Fair Trade. IFAT will be the global network and advocate for Fair Trade, ensuring producer voices are heard.

Over 300 Fair Trade Organizations in 70 countries form the basis of our network and membership is growing steadily. Approximately 65% of our members are based in the South (that is: Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America) with the rest coming from North America & the Pacific Rim and Europe. We are truly international!

Our members have the concept of Fair Trade at the heart of their mission and at the core of what they do. They come in many shapes and sizes and represent the Fair Trade chain from production to sale. Our members are producer co-operatives and associations, export marketing companies, importers, retailers, national and regional Fair Trade networks and financial institutions, dedicated to Fair Trade principles.

The Fair Trade Federation (FTF) is an international association of businesses and non-profit organizations that are fully committed to fair trade. Members strive to sell 100% fairly traded product and to create positive employment opportunities for economically- disadvantaged artisans and farmers worldwide.

FTF seeks to alleviate global poverty through the promotion of trading practices based on principles of social and economic justice. It strengthens the capacity of members by providing information about: fair trade principles and practices, fair trade and commercial market opportunities, and financial and technical assistance to ensure the growth and development of member businesses. The Federation encourages communication and information exchange among producers, wholesalers, retailers, and other organizations. FTF also raises awareness about the importance of purchasing fairly traded products and supporting businesses committed to fair trade principles.

EFTA (the European Fair Trade Association) is an association of eleven Fair Trade importers in nine European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom). EFTA was established informally in 1987 by some of the oldest and largest Fair Trade importers. It gained formal status in 1990. EFTA is based in the Netherlands and has Dutch Articles of Association.

The aim of EFTA is to support its member organizations in their work and to encourage them to cooperate and coordinate. It facilitates the exchange of information and networking, it creates conditions for labour division and it identifies and develops joint projects. It does this, among others, by organizing meetings of the members (on food, handicrafts, marketing, managers) and by circulating relevant information to them. It is also maintaining a database of EFTA suppliers, called Fairdata, which contains details on suppliers and their products. EFTA has an office in Brussels which is responsible for the execution of the Fair Procura project, funded by the EU; the aim of this project is to make public authorities and institutional buyers local actors of sustainable development.

TransFair USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is one of twenty members of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), and the only third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. We audit transactions between US companies offering Fair Trade Certified™ products and the international suppliers from whom they source, in order to guarantee that the farmers and farm workers behind Fair Trade Certified goods were paid a fair, above-market price. In addition, annual inspections conducted by FLO ensure that strict socioeconomic development criteria are being met using increased Fair Trade revenues.

We seek to empower and enrich the lives of family farmers and workers around the world. Ours is a market-based approach to ending poverty, an alternative to dependency on aid. We believe farmers should get a fair price for their harvest, and workers deserve safe working conditions, a decent living wage and the right to organize. Through direct, equitable trade, farming and working families are able to eat better, keep their kids in school, improve health and housing, and invest in the future. Strong families, vibrant local economies, support for the natural environment, sustainable community development, and hope for the future - these are the results we seek through Fair Trade.

Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) is an umbrella organization that unites 20 Labelling Initiatives in 21 countries and Producer Networks representing Fairtrade Certified Producer Organizations in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

FLO is the leading standard setting and certification organization for labelled Fairtrade. Products carry the Fairtrade Certification Mark as the independent consumer guarantee that producers in the developing world get a better deal.

Fairtrade Certified Products have helped build economic independence and empowerment for Fairtrade Certified small farmer organizations and their members, bringing them economic stability and a higher standard of living. Beyond being paid a fair price (Fairtrade Minimum Price) for their produce, the Fairtrade Premium helps producers to build necessary social infrastructure of which the following are only some of the examples:

  • Improved access to low or no-interest loans
  • Technical assistance for building infrastructure to improve production
  • Communications systems, and collectively-owned transport and processing equipment
  • Better health care and education
  • Technical training and skill diversification for cooperative members and their families

Currently, FLO facilitates the sustainable development and empowerment of disadvantaged producers and workers in 59 countries.

Are you confused yet? All of these organizations are membership driven and emerged from different needs people had since the push for fair trade began in the 1970's. Label recognition and membership alliances are both important tools to help customers access fair trade products. But, it is a bit difficult to keep all the labels straight.

Co-op America's National Green Pages is an excellent resource for people who want to find fair trade products online or in their area. Click on their logo and you will see the search results for fair trade members. If you are not familiar with the Green Pages, do explore it. Members include all kinds of businesses that have a green agenda, including banks, financial institutions, phone services, and so on. It is appropriate that fair trade groups ally themselves with green or eco organizations as they normally share a common vision of environmental sustainability.

There have been many bumps along the road of fair trade history. Because it is a movement, groups differ greatly in how they are structured, the quality of products they deliver and how much of an impact they actually have in the lives of the people they represent. Aid to Artisans came into existence as a response to the need for design and marketing guidance. Their mission:

"Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit organization, offers practical assistance to artisan groups worldwide, working in partnerships to foster artistic traditions, cultural vitality, improved livelihoods and community well-being. Through collaboration in product development, business skills training and development of new markets, Aid to Artisans provides sustainable economic and social benefits for craftspeople in an environmentally sensitive and culturally respectful manner."

Working with Aid to Artisans would be my dream job! They have truly helped many fair trade groups increase their product appeal by helping with new designs, educating about market trends and taking traditional crafts to an up-scale level. Many fair trade groups still have a terrible problem with quality control and with making products relevant to today's consumers tastes. I call this the "missionary mentality". Good people with good intentions who have no clue about fashion, decor, or market trends. Fair trade groups can be small Mom and Pop operations while others are large, corporate operations with savvy staff and generous operating budgets.

Another problem the fair trade movement has had, especially in the handicrafts arena, is the inability to attract or keep businesses with similar goals in the loop. I believe that part of this is a result of old school leadership who may have a bit of a "holier than thou" approach to their peers. I haven't been actively involved in conferences or in formal alliances for many years, but still have friends who are and they have complained about some of the power struggles within different organizations.

Novica, for example, is one of my favorite online retailers. They work in association with National Geographic and represent artists around the world, showcasing their profiles with every product sold. Their products and designs are top quality and they espouse the same values as most fair trade organizations selling similar products. They are a member of Co-op America, yet nowhere on their site did I find language used by fair trade organizations. Why is this? There is a failure of alliance by many key companies in joining in with the fair trade movement and one has to wonder about why this happens.

Finally, how does one measure the success of fair trade in the lives of the people it represents? In many situations, fair does not mean having a wage comparable to that of an American. (Although now the dollar is so low that there might actually be some leveling out here.) Many of the producers working with fair trade organizations are women. These women often face specific cultural and gender challenges in what kind of income potential they can have. For example, a friend working with women in India, talked about how the men resented their women making more than them. Or, men would beat the women and take the salaries for their own use. Other forms of payment often have to be made that are culturally appropriate. Fair trade means looking at the whole picture: educational opportunities, clean water, clinics, and other amenities that can serve the whole neighborhood or village are often what producers want. In order to bring these services to fruition, a fair trade group must have a long relationship with its producers. It takes years to navigate all the political and economic hoops that constrain many of these communities. War and local rebellions are another factor that also disrupt economic advancement.

So, in deciding which organizations to support, I would look at their track record and see if they document any of their real accomplishments. Most of the websites have testimonials by their producers and many have been around now for twenty or more years. At the side bar of this blog, I have a category for Fair Trade and Green Fiber websites. If you are interested in supporting fair trade, those groups are a good place to start. Each of us has to decide whether a group is accomplishing its mission or not, but all of them need support to even have the chance to succeed. One thing is for certain, sweat shops, child labor and other slave like operations do nothing to better our world. Violence is one of the options people resort to when they are fed up with being used. Promoting and supporting fair trade makes the world safer for all of us. It also helps make better use of our resources. Poverty is not only financial. It is social and environmental. As Bono questions in the video below, what will we be remembered for?


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