Strands of the Fair Trade Movement

Rink Dickinson
August 1, 2017

Is there a Fair Trade movement? How significant does a citizen’s social activity have to be to qualify as a participant in a movement? At its peak, Fair Trade social activity may have made it to the movement level in the U.S. and in some other Northern countries. We are past that period now, but can still learn from its history.

A Citizen Movement versus Organizational Self Interest

Too often, the Fair Trade movement—as vague as it is—has been confused with the work of organizations seeking to control and capitalize on existing movements for their own organizational interest. This has been the prime strategy of the certification seals, be they Transfair/Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade Labeling Organization (pick your country), or the Fair Trade Foundation in the U.K. The certifiers have been well positioned to look like the leaders of a movement, but they have actually been economic entities working their marketing strategies for their own gain.

Similarly, but with less pretense, other economic players who support and engage in Fair Trade exist because of the movement, but are construction projects of the movement with their own contradictions, weaknesses, and strengths. In this category I would put Alternative Trade Organizations such as Equal Exchange, non-profits who consistently or occasionally support authentic Fair Trade, farmer co-operatives, and socially aware businesses.

The Citizen Level

Engaged citizens, through their energy, excitement, and action, have made possible what Fair Trade has been able to accomplish. I see three primary strands of activists that have been central to the movement:

1. Religious/Mission Focused - This group is primarily, but not exclusively, Christian. The commitment to the poor and to service at a genuine, foundational level has led to all kinds of experiences and creation of new ways to support their values. I am constantly amazed and impressed when I see how many faith-based Americans have gone abroad because of this commitment, and come back with a long-term goal of being part of the solution to global inequality and poverty.

Not only have church supporters been key in the movement in the North, they have been key in the producing countries as well. A very large number of key farmer co-ops have benefitted from deep, committed support from Christian organizations in the North wanting to create real reform in power and trade relations.

At the organizational level, Equal Exchange struggled to come into being long after Ten Thousand Villages and SERRV had already built paths as U.S. Alternative Trade Organizations committed to trading with the poor on terms that increased their power, their well-being, and their dignity. Having those two high-integrity organizations set an example which made our path much easier.

2. Development of the North and South - A small, but meaningful, number of Americans have been exposed to studies and analysis concerning how the world economic and political systems work. Why is it that some countries (historically European or North American) have been so wealthy and others (historically African, Asian, Latin American) so poor? How does the world economic system work? Why does it often create greater inequality as it grows?

Americans and others exploring these questions can go in many directions in pursuit of their best answers. For a significant number of people, the path has been toward understanding these dynamics on a first-hand basis, and many others have put their efforts toward supporting alternative experiments that can change the way the system works. 

A subset of this group is citizens working on trade policy and fairer global trade arrangements. The issue of trade between countries and blocks of countries has become the center of attention in the last 20 years. The fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement first put it on the agenda and then other trade arrangements such as the World Trade Organization, Central American Free Trade Agreement, and Trans-Pacific Partnership have kept this a core issue. All of these trade agreements have locked in rules that tend to benefit large corporations and further weaken small farmers and organized labor. The desire for “Fair Trade” in these agreements has some overlap to the Fair Trade that groups like Equal Exchange engage in.

Another subset of this group is people working against U.S. domination and imperialism. Although the landscape has changed dramatically and now there are way fewer “goodish guys” and way more evil, anti-systemic movements, this subgroup deserves mention. The Vietnam War experience challenged all kinds of American assumptions and then the Central American solidarity movement developed our citizen understanding dramatically. Equal Exchange itself was somewhat borne from this movement, as were other Alternative Trade Organizations such as Equal Exchange U.K., and Stichting Ideele in the Netherlands. 

3. Food Justice - Then I think there is a currently a broader strand which more people relate to than the other strands: citizens committed to food justice. Obviously, people can overlap between all of these groups. But this group manifests itself as people who are motivated by social justice and justice on food issues who flow to where the energy is. Over the last 50-60 years, this could have meant the forming of a local or regional food co-op, support for local farmers, support for grape or tomato boycotts, an action to keep a big box store from coming to town, or for an action to make Fair Trade coffee known and accessible.

In our 31 years of building this Equal Exchange project there have been times of high energy (such as in the early years around Nicaragua), times of working almost alone (much of the ‘90s), a time of the coming out of Fair Trade (the first part of the ‘00s) and then the exit of Fair Trade later in that decade. The most energy and greatest chance of success will come when we are able to engage all three of these groups. So where do we go from here? 

What's Next 

On a movement level, I believe almost all of the pioneer “Fair Trade” organizations allowed the seals to gain control of the agenda. Equal Exchange is guilty of this, as are almost all Alternative Trade Organizations and affiliated non-profit organizations. The certifiers were happy to be in the driver’s seat and happy to make Fair Trade on terms that worked for large traders and supermarkets. The net result was a weak, confusing, ineffective model that was seen as just that by tens of thousands of activists in the food justice strand of our movement. It seems unlikely that Fair Trade as such can do much to change that. The energy is all but gone, the model is compromised, and the intellectual property has been stolen from small farmers and stripped of value for Northern consumers.

But the gains of our history are there. Hundreds of Southern producer groups have made real progress. Citizens from all three strands of the movement are just as present as ever. There is greater understanding that Northern citizen-consumers can positively impact small farmers. We can learn from the gains and failures of the last 20 years as we keep building our skills, capacity, and vision for the next period.

For Equal Exchange the next step is the Action Forum and creating a space where citizens, Equal Exchange worker-owners, and food justice advocates can get support, listen, learn, and develop our skills as organizers, citizens, investors, and consumers. As we build this we will look for other ways to support our farmer partners and create positive change to the food system here in the North.