Fair Trade is defined by historical fair trade organizations gathered in FINE (FLO, WFTO and two European networks selling fair trade products) as an « alternative approach to conventional trade and is based on a partnership between producers and consumers. Fairtrade offers producers a better deal and improved terms of trade, allowing them to improve their lives and plan for their future. Fairtrade offers consumers a powerful way to reduce poverty through their every day shopping. »
By positioning itself as an alternative approach to conventional trade, fair trade suggests world trade rules are globally unfair to Southern nations, and particularly to their rural producers. While this is only true as far as companies operating this trade don’t follow fairness strandards, the Fair Trade movement has pioneered commercial relations between producers and consumers that are based on equity, partnership, trust and shared interest. Those respect precise criteria, and pursue objectives from various directions: in order to obtain fairer conditions for groups of marginalized producers, and to develop the practices and rules of international trade with the support of consumers.
During the last few decades, the Fair Trade movement has enjoyed a sustained development, notably in Northern Europe and other developed countries. Despite constant progression, differing strategies have emerged, and questions have been raised about the impact of these practices and their ability to present a real alternative towards sustainable and equitable development.
Fair Trade certification by FLO (Fair Trade Labelling Organization) has been particularly instrumental in boosting sales of products from small-scale cooperatives from the South. In the last decade, however, it has gone under a set of criticism both by consumers and producers organized in cooperatives in Latin America and Africa.
The most obvious flaw is that FLO now certifies under the « fair trade » label products which are not from small-scale groups of producers, but plantations, in products such as tea, rooibos, fruit juice, etc. This creates some confusion, as « Fair Trade » is usually associated with small scale producers, not private plantations. Why not called the trade with the latter which follows ethical standards « ethical trade », to avoid confusion ?
Secondly, FLO, as any certifier, has seemed more preoccupied by boosting sales of Fair Trade labelled products than by checking the impact this has in the South. Impact studies have however started in the last few years, and results are contrasted depending on the cases.
Also, South-South as well as North-North exchange represents an undervalued issue. National structures of fair Trade have been set up in several Southern nations, which are sometimes reluctant to join international structures set up in European countries. Creating Fair Trade conditions at different levels would also allow a better understanding of the environmental dimension to develop.
Thirdly, is Fair Trade sustainable trade? In recent years consumers have been more and more preoccupied by issues such as the energy resulting from transporation (food miles), the loss of biodiversity in certain mono-cultures, and a new trend is emerging which privileges local organic food. How the Fair Trade movement will adapt and articulate to this new trend is of premium importance for its future. A number of innovations have also come to the fore for clarifying and converging the criteria of equity and sustainability.
Fair Trade could thus be seen in the near future as a set of practices in the North and South cultivating equitable and open partnerships for sustainable trade and development. Fortunatly there are several new initiatives, which we will document here, that have produced creative responses to the present challenges and questionings, notably the development of regional exchange and alliances in both the North and South, and through innovations in the area of certification and distribution.