It’s Fair Trade Fortnight, May 1st to 15th, the fair trade movement’s version of International Development Week, only twice as long! On Saturday, May 12th, we’ll be celebrating World Fair Trade Day. These are not just Canadian events, but “universal”, with North American and “Down Under” activists taking the cue (or queue) from Britain and Europe. However, never let it be said that Fair Trade is not coming of age here in Canada and that, with a minimum of funding but a history of perseverance, significant inroads are being made commercially and institutionally in awareness of fair trade issues and acceptance of fair trade products.
In just a few words of definition, the Fair Trade system guarantees a fair price to agricultural and factory/workshop workers as well as artisans in developing countries ensures that their workplaces are safe, often includes organic certification and always cooperative production, focuses on issues of transparency, democratic governance and gender equality, and pays a premium that supports community improvements, such as schools, clinics, training and equipment. Fair Trade Certified products have a third-party audit/inspection process (see Fairtrade Canada ), while “direct fair trade” has less formality but connects to the efforts of groups here in Canada, with Ten Thousand Villages being the largest example, working with overseas communities on their development priorities.
The World Fair Trade Organization reports that fair trade sales now top $5 Billion, benefiting almost 10 million producers and workers worldwide. While still a niche market in the overall commercial scheme of things, fair trade sales are growing worldwide by over 20% annually. The number of fair trade products available in Canada is growing noticeably as new Canadian companies come on board and European imports reach our shores, beyond the usual coffee, tea and chocolate – to many more food products, clothing, sports balls and more.
In our country, a major initiative is underway to create fair trade campuses, with UBC and Simon Fraser signed on and more to come, much of the groundwork being done by Engineers without Borders campus chapters. There are now fifteen Fair Trade Towns in Canada, a far cry from the hundreds in Great Britain but many of our metropolitan areas are currently working on making this a reality in the near future. In Manitoba, the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation’s Fair Trade Manitoba program has created a “Fair Trade Event” designation and recently bestowed this recognition on the large, popular, venerable Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Of course, the best news is the growing availability of Fair Trade Certified (FTC) wines and other liquor products! In Manitoba, thanks to the leadership of the MB Liquor Control Commission, over 30 FTC wines are now available from cooperatives in Chile, Argentina and South Africa, representing the beginnings of change in an industry that in the past has spread poor social health instead of strong human wealth in producer countries. Other large procurers, such as municipalities, school divisions, casinos, government departments, campuses, museums and credit unions are also taking up the challenge.
And public opinion is with us too! A Probe Research Survey of 1000 Manitobans which was just done in April for MCIC and funded by the Manitoba Government’s Entrepreneurship, Training & Trade Department, showed that two-thirds of Manitobans want to buy fair trade products even if the price is on average 10% higher than conventional brands. As well, it showed that over half of Manitobans would like to see fair trade products available in local restaurants.
The social, economic and environmental benefits to developing country communities and the global citizenship impacts of fair trade initiatives on consumers in Canada have been documented. Green Bean Coffee Imports, Manitoba’s only Fair Trade Certified fair trade roaster, recently worked with groups in British Columbia – with Crossroads International acting as an intermediary, having had a longstanding economic development project with fair trade producers in Bolivia – to import a container of green coffee beans. This has benefited a struggling young company in Manitoba, several more in BC, and the Coaine Coffee Co-op in Bolivia.
My own experience is with villages around Mwanza City in northwestern Tanzania where previously impoverished communities have moved to a point of what one Canadian development worker termed “middle class”. Longstanding support from Canadian NGOs helped artisans to improve their craft through South-South exchanges, training in the business side of craft making (bookkeeping, storage, marketing, shipping), and networking with buyer groups around the developed world. These entrepreneurial, cooperative initiatives, coupled with successes in local agriculture, have made a huge difference in people’s lives.
There are challenges, too. Supply is an issue as our world revolves around large scale availability of product. One still can’t easily order 5000 FT t-shirts and expect immediate delivery, as we experienced when trying to field a request from Manitoba Lotteries. Fair trade needs to scale up, but needs greater security in the marketplace before it can do so.
Certification beyond food products is also a challenge. For those wanting the official fair trade label affixed to the clothing or the handicrafts they purchase, there are still questions of standards, evaluation and credibility. Pretenders, as with any process, have inserted themselves into the market. It’s called “fairwashing”, just as in the environmental movement, it’s called “greenwashing”. A frequent question posed at information sessions is “Who can we believe?” or “What is the difference between Fair Trade Certification, Rainforest Alliance and Utz Kapeh?” (link to a study comparing different certification systems?)
I first got involved in fair trade in the ‘80s when the only food product available was (really bad) Bridgehead Coffee, vacuum packed in the shape of a brick. We also had baskets and other crafts supplied by partner organizations in East Africa. Only a few people shopped for these products. Today, we can sit down with Cabinet Ministers, school division superintendents and business CEOs and talk credibly about policies and practices in fair trade. We’ve come a long way, especially in the past five years. Fair Trade Fortnight’s theme this year is Take a Step for Fair Trade so let’s celebrate those steps, and each of us commit to taking more!Post written by Zack Gross, Fair Trade Outreach Coordinator, Manitoba Council for International Cooperation.