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Fair Trade Everywhere! Mainstreaming the Movement


Sam’s Club, a division of Wal-Mart, annouced that they have converted their “private label Member’s Mark premium ground coffee” to Fair Trade Certified. The process from bean begins with 3678 small scale, independent farmers who then sell their beans to “democratically-run cooperatives for a set, guaranteed minimum price.” This pool of beans from thousands of independent farmers is what composes the Member’s Mark brand. In conjunction with this announcement, Sam’s Club is offering a grant for teachers and students to spend one week studying the Fair Trade process of their coffee in Brazil. While this is not the first Fair Trade brand offered in either Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club, it is significant as it is a bulk ground coffee targeted towards mainstream shoppers.

This new move is a mixed blessing and hits upon one of the main points of contention within the Fair Trade movement. Fair Trade has moved into mainstream and is appearing everywhere from McDonalds to Dunkin’ Donuts to Wal-Mart. Any and all exposure of Fair Trade and it’s ideals to consumers is beneficial. And a larger market translates to more sales for producers and their communities.

However, as Fair Trade is embraced by large corporations with questionable ethics, so too is the potential to for exploitation and weakening of Fair Trade. Similar to companies that “greenwash,” to bolster their environmental credit, there are companies which seek to cash in on the feel-good PR Fair Trade offers, without making a true commitment to the ideals and meaning of the movement. One such gap between company marketing and ethical behavior occurred when Nestle released its Fair Trade coffee in 2005. Nestle has been at the center of ethical controversy for over twenty years, with boycotts for their “aggressive and irresponsible promotion of infant formula,” and for contributing to child abuse and torture within the cocoa industry, including large distribution from the Cote d’Ivoire. There was much critism of Nestle’s Fair Trade coffee and following it’s release, they were reported to the UK Advertising Standards Authority for a misleading and dishonest advertisement.

“Nestlé’s advertisement and website for its Fairtrade product imply it will have a significant impact on farmers in El Salvador and that the company’s activities in the coffee industry are ethical. The truth is only about 200 farmers in El Salvador supply coffee for Partners’ Blend and over 3 million farmers globally who are dependent on Nestlé remain outside the Fairtrade system. Nestlé is held partly responsible for forcing down prices paid to suppliers, driving many into poverty, while its own profits have soared. Recently I interviewed a researcher from Colombia who told me 150,000 coffee farming families have lost their livelihoods due to Nestlé policies.”

There is also confusion relating to the different Fair Trade labels and what they mean, and, unfortunately, companies are happy to prey upon this confusion. The Fair Trade Certified Mark means that particular product was certified. In most food products, this means it is certified at the beginning point such as farming and harvesting, but not always beyond this point. This creates opportunity for corruption at subsequent points along the way, such as with the problems with Fair Trade bananas and the exploitation of banana ripeners. Such inconsistencies occur when a company wishes to use Fair Trade, rather than commit to it.

Then what is the solution? Should Fair Trade be confined to its current size and guarded from the large corporate giants? I don’t believe this is the solution. I believe the growth of Fair Trade, when true and committed, should be an important goal. Fair Trade is not a premium brand label, but a different approach to our entire concept of trade. The Fair Trade movement is based upon a fair and just interaction between the consumer and the producer. If the vessel for this interaction is corrupted or dishonest, then it is upon our shoulders as consumers to correct or discard the vessel for one that is more trustworthy. The fact that Fair Trade is entering large corporate retailers is not necessarily a reflection of their goodwill, and it is important to remember this. The mainstreaming of Fair Trade is, however, a reflection of our growing desire to consume ethically and responsibly and it is upon this foundation that we should build the movement and hold all participants accountable. So it is with skeptical optimism that I welcome this Fair Trade expansion, and a hope that the company will commit to the true Fair Trade and an acceptance of responsibility to ensure they do.


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