The Disastrous State of British Fair Trade and What We Can Learn From It

Rink Dickinson
September 5, 2017

First, I want to thank Tom Reich, a member of the Equal Exchange Action Forum, for sharing a series of articles from the Guardian on the state of fair trade in the U.K. The articles have a perspective and analysis of fair trade and its dilemmas that apply beyond the U.K. that one simply cannot find in the U.S. in the alternative or mainstream press.

Fair trade has gone further in the U.K. than perhaps any other country. And now fair trade—as viewed from the perspective of labeled product—is falling off the cliff. Sainsbury, one of the largest supermarkets in the U.K., is slowly abandoning the seal in favor of in-house certification. Tesco, another major supermarket, is abandoning the seal but on a faster timeline. Likewise, Mondelez, one of the largest chocolate companies, is replacing the already weakened, corporate-dominated seal with its own fully controlled, in-house seal.

The U.K. strategy for fair trade was to mainstream it and to coax the large supermarkets into marketing the fair trade concept. This also is exactly what has happened with the certifiers/marketers in the rest of Europe and North America. The British went further and faster in this direction. This strategy appeared to work extremely well for a while, but in the last five years or so the market gains of fair trade are becoming losses in the mainstream while the true fair trade organizations have been devastated.

Some of the salient points from the Guardian pieces are:

  • Of all the “ethical” marketing schemes, at least fair trade connected with some consumer organizing and had some citizen-to-corporation energy.
  • There is a deep contradiction in the entire fair trade system. Is the goal a smaller volume at a higher price with higher standards? Or is it greater volume at lower prices and lower standards?
  • To what extent is fair trade only marketing hype? 
  • The fair trade model probably is quite compromised. Even if that is the case it might still be one of the best models out there.
  • Fair trade is about much more than just price or volume of products. It is also about capacity building and governance.
  • The benefits of “fairness to farmers” are subsumed in a food system that needs profit, and will use and abandon this fairness as needed.

We encourage you to check out the Guardian articles. There is a lot of information and analysis of fair trade that applies directly and indirectly to North America. I have a few observations to add to the conversation as well.  

FAIR TRADE AND EUROPEAN/BRITISH COLONIALISM

As the fair trade project—particularly in the Northern countries—crashes under its own contradictions, it is increasingly clear that the colonialist legacy is a key part of the story. Guilt can be good; there is no doubt in my mind that guilt about the Dutch empire, the British empire or European colonialism in general is part of what led to fair trade consumer support. 

It was not that long ago that Winston Churchill was leading Britain in the battle against Nazis while working as hard as he could to hold onto a bunch of the colonies. While the war waged, Churchill was electorally defeated by Clement Attlee and the Labour Party, who wanted to let go of the colonies. The fast and irresponsible manner that the British under Attlee decolonized in Palestine and India was an absolute disaster, and directly led to those regions’ massive conflicts, which the world is still dealing with today. Quickly washing hands of responsibility for empire was perhaps just as wrong as Churchill’s position of holding onto the colonies. The culture of empire in the U.K. is pernicious and can still be seen in the actions and attitudes of people - including fair trade leaders.

Consumers in the U.K, Holland, Germany, and other European countries felt guilt and were motivated by that and took action to “support producers” or “alleviate poverty” or “support fairness.” 

On a higher level the institutional leaders of the certifiers were even more clear in the rightness of their cause - as certain as Churchill in wanting to keep the colonies or Attlee in washing his hands of them. They and their cohorts in Germany, Holland, and the other European countries were the primary builders of a system of global fairness, built by Northerners, for the benefit of Southern producers, run and controlled by Northerners. Unlike colonial projects, fair trade really is for the benefit of Southern farmers. In fact, these farmers even had all kinds of governance control in the fair trade model which should have been very meaningful.

But the last 20 years has showed us that ultimate control of fair trade initiatives was always in the North. The fair trade seals, despite some producer governance, are steeped in post-colonial power including a mainly European mindset that lacks self examination. This mindset that British or Germans or Northerners should really make all the major fair trade decisions has been a huge weakness. It has led to bad deals with large companies and supermarkets. It has led to disillusion from farmers and ATOs. It has led to decisions that challenged the success and existence of ATOs and small farmer organizations. And, it has led to disillusion from consumers. Ultimately, it has led to weakness and the current rapid decline of fair trade in the U.K.

FAIR TRADE WITHOUT FAIR TRADE ORGANIZATIONS (IN THE NORTH)

The organizations that built the foundations of fair trade were fair trade organizations (or alternative trade organizations). Organizations in the U.K. like Traidcraft, Equal Exchange U.K., Twin Trading, Cafe Direct, and Fullwell Mill. Organizations in the U.S. like SERRV, Ten Thousand Villages and later us, Equal Exchange. These organizations have a complex, difficult job. They have to operate in the economy. They have to buy, sell and at least break even financially. But their mission is to build supply chains, take risk, send money, sell products that are not quite ready for the market, and build support for alternative/fair trade.

By definition, food or craft companies that are large businesses should be more efficient and more effective in fighting in the competitive market than ATOs. After getting the support from ATOs, certifiers like Fair Trade Mark in the U.K., not understanding how supply chains worked, assumed that bigger customers were by definition better. They pushed for and got their sealed products less and less from fair traders, and more from big corporations, into the supermarkets. Part of that was good, but to meet the supermarkets’ terms, ultimately standards were lowered, and the seals began to work for the corporations and not the farmers. The ATOs, meanwhile, faced intense economic competition, and because they/we failed to articulate their difference, have been pounded into the margins and in some cases pushed near insolvency. Meanwhile, citizen-consumers in the U.K. and the North have become increasingly confused, bored and semi-aware that “fair trade” is everywhere but means less and less.

If we were to rewind the experiment it is clear to me that for authentic fair trade to work in the market there has to be a strong place for fair trade organizations. Only they will take the risk, commit to all of the work (beyond buying and selling), necessary to change the market in favor of small producers. You can’t have a successful fair trade market without Northern fair trade organizations. You shouldn’t believe that large corporations under intense pressure will live for the agenda of small farmers in Nicaragua or Mexico.

WHERE IS THIS MOVEMENT WE ALL TALK ABOUT?

All of us like to believe there is or was a fair trade movement. As an American I am certain that whatever almost-movement/semi-movement we had in the U.S. had to be much stronger in the U.K. . But still, what was this movement? Where did it exist? How much of a movement was it really? 

In almost all cases the movement came to be understood as the national initiatives/certifiers/seals. These organizations came to be seen as the platonic ideal of fair tradeness. Unlike the ATOs, they had no dirty commercial stains; they were purely there for “the producers.” As they appeared to capture more products the movement appeared to be progressing.

For a while fair trade was an idea whose time had come. Consumer and citizen-consumer support for this idea was strong. The ask was simple, clear and beautiful. There was energy, campaigning, and passion. But with early “success” came the abandonment and repackaging of all that the true fair traders had accomplished. The product of fair trade became the product of coffee (Equal Exchange’s most successful model by far) and then the product of anything a supermarket wanted from their friendly national fair trade initiative. The U.K. again went further and faster down this path than any other country. 

The movement’s members were quickly asked by the seals and even the ATOs to simply buy a bunch of products. The producers were meanwhile being told to shut up while corporations lowered and perverted fair trade standards and definitions. Maybe this “fair trade” product didn’t benefit a small farmer, maybe it was zero percent from the source it claimed to be from, maybe it was from an exploitative plantation, maybe it was from a group of individual farmers organized by a corporation. All of that was possible and likely. But don’t ask questions.

MOVING FORWARD

The fair trade movement, if there was one, was misused by its self-selected leaders. The result is the movement or post-movement is weak. We need to restart the process of learning and engaging. We need to learn from our history and our mistakes. Much of this learning can take place across the communities of our Northern countries. Just as farmers from Costa Rica or Nicaragua or Peru learn from each other, many Northern consumers face similar challenges and can learn from one another, too. 

So as we learn from this history we should give deep consideration to how best to build meaningful ties between farmers and their co-ops in the South and citizen-consumers in the North. We should seek opportunities for mutual learning, information sharing, and innovation. At an organizational level we at Equal Exchange do our best to both learn and share with farmers and staff, and represent as authentically as possible our understanding of farmers' lives and challenges with our customers. But we have rarely invested more broadly in building an actual North-South movement, and likewise we have not found credible ways to involve farmers in our internal democratic structures. We are proactively doing more of this connection-building through the Equal Exchange Action Forum

For Equal Exchange we have also intentionally supported our allies in the U.K. and in Canada. We have done this by saving a couple of struggling ATOs and by working with other groups. We do this out of solidarity, but also out of self interest. We are taking on the work of rebuilding somewhat from the ground up. To do that work we need to ask questions, share lessons, listen, and re-engage. 

Let us know what you think in the comments.