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Which Apple or Banana To Buy…One Is Organic & Healthier, Plus It Guarantees The Sma lLittle Man A better Salary…Fair Trade Is A Social Movement

certification infographic

 Certification: A Tool with Limits

Certification labels for consumer products are a tool that serve, on the surface, a simple purpose: to distinguish products that otherwise appear similar from one another. A conventional apple and an organic apple may taste and look identical, but a consumer may wish to choose the organic apple based on the lower environmental impact and/or lack of pesticide residue.

Similarly, although fair trade and conventional bananas may look similar, a consumer wishing to be assured that the farmers who grew the bananas were paid a fair price, are part of an organized structure that received a premium for community development projects, and have met standards for environmental protection and worker welfare, may choose fair trade bananas.

In practice, it is not quite this simple. For one thing, fair trade certification no longer guarantees that small-scale organized producers are at the start of the supply chain because most fair trade certifiers have opened up their programs to large-scale farms, at least for certain crops and sectors.

On the one hand, this reflects good news in the larger picture. Where farmworkers are historically largely invisible and disempowered, there is a growing awareness globally that they endure some of the most dangerous and low-paying work there is, usually without significant protection or safety nets, despite performing some of the most important work in agriculture. Clearly, we need to do more for farmworkers.

However, it is not necessarily good news that fair trade programs have jumped into the void. Most are not equipped to create standards or monitoring systems for large-scale farms or factories. This is reflected first and foremost in their governance structures, as no traditional fair trade standard-setter has significant labor representation as part of their top-tier governing or decision-making bodies.

Some of the certification programs have tried to correct this by reaching out to labor NGOs and unions to improve their hired labor programs. Fairtrade International (FLO) provides the best example of this, and upon recommendations made by their Worker Rights Advisory Committee (WRAC), made up of union representatives and labor rights advocates, they have improved their requirements in key areas such as collective bargaining (now a requirement, not just a right) and living wages (now must be benchmarked and assessed, rather than just presented as an unattainable ideal).

Though in some cases there has been progress in improving requirements for workers on large-scale farms, in the marketplace products and ingredients from these large-scale operations are confusingly labeled “fair trade,” presenting a new obstacle for organized small-scale farmers who originally developed the term to distinguish themselves. Fair trade labels were intended to open up new markets for small-scale producers, allowing them to compete in a global market that favors larger-scale farms and consolidated buyers. Now, once again, fair trade producers are being forced into competition with large-scale farms using the very same fair trade label, and they are understandably worried. So worried about this trend, in fact, that a group of small-scale producers has now launched a new label, the Small Producers’ Symbol (SPS), to recreate the market advantage that fair trade was intended to provide.

Two solutions have been proposed within the movement to counter this dynamic. The first is to set the bar for large-scale farms even higher in order to level the playing field. If standards for large-scale farms required true democratic organization (not just limited participation on a committee to discuss premium use, which is often the case now), and true living wages, along with empowerment, long-term commitment and other fair trade principles – rather than simply focusing on improved health and safety, as many do – it would be more costly and difficult for large-scale producers to achieve and therefore would help reduce competition for small-scale farmers.

The second solution is to call these hired labor programs, the best of them at least, “fair labor” rather than “fair trade.” Right now a consumer has no way of knowing just by looking at the label whether their fair trade avocado comes from a large-scale plantation or from a cooperative of smallholders. This would eliminate any confusion for consumers who believe they are supporting small-scale farmers with their purchases. Mounting evidence suggests that small-scale producers globally are the key to feeding the world while protecting the environment, but that they also need better support systems through both policies and market access.