Fair Trade Inc.?

02/04/2007 - 2:55 PM

I had a chance to attend the 27th annual Ecological Farming Conference last week. The EFA was one of the earliest efforts at organizing sustainable agriculture into a cohesive alternative to the modern agribusiness method of crop production. The theme running throughout the show was the mainstreaming and “Wal-Marting” of organics, and many of the old guard were visibly and vocally concerned.

One of the keynotes was given by Samuel Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc. His book discusses the growth and evolution of the organic food segment, and the more recent consolidation and big business entry into the market, two of the trends that many believe led to the need for an alternative organic model in the first place. In the speech he pointed out that “growth without idealism would turn organics into just another supermarket category…” and the challenge for the industry was to pair idealism with capitalism.

More and more often, Fair Trade is being referred to as “the next organics” category in the supermarket, and there are certainly some lessons to be learned. The benefit of reaching the mainstream with new, more sustainable supply models is that it leverages a much larger consumer power base to change the way business operates. But while many mainstream consumers want to make a difference, their behavior is still influenced by some long-standing priorities – the need for convenience, and a measure of relative value. The challenge is to deliver on this without violating the underlying principles that started the organics movement in the first place.

This applies equally well to Fair Trade. Benefits of making Fair Trade a mainstream consumer movement must be balanced with the need to keep the end goal in mind. As a promoter and certifier, we face this challenge daily. The challenge of growing the market without watering down the “Fair Trade brand” is obvious. But even more difficult still is working through complex supply chains to generate opportunity and market power for farmers who have traditionally been detached from the chain, and mistreated by firms and market forces that push towards commoditization. We strive to create mechanisms which give them a role in the oversight of the Fair Trade system, and keep the capitalism in line with the idealism. More on one of those mechanisms later this month.

Samuel was not alone on the panel, and his fellow panelists introduced the idea of continuous improvement and an ever higher bar as the key to preserving integrity in organics. One audience member commented that we only have one Earth, and “the only standard that really matters is full sustainability.” This is a very powerful idea and one full of hope. No matter where we set the bar, there will always be those who want to do better, until we have achieved a sustainable and just way of life. It certainly beats the alternative.
02/04/2007 - 2:55 PM
02/04/2007 - 2:55 PM