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Who Should Provide the Evidence About How Much of an Impact Fair Trade Makes?

by Jeff Goldman

There is often debate about whether Fair Trade is effective, fair, and the best way to empower vulnerable farmers and artisans.  Others argue whether it helps environmental sustainability, or reduces demand for producers’ products.  While such debate is crucial, all sides would have stronger arguments if their cases were made with comprehensive, robust research and data.  Observers are often criticizing one another for having opinions based on theory without evidence, conclusions drawn from anecdotes and not thorough study, and narrow case studies.  So, as Fair Trade continues growing substantially, who should bring the proof?

We have seen glimpses of parts of the answers.  Several academics have written articles, many listed in the online catalog Fair Trade Institute.  A few people have written books on specific situations, like Daniel Jaffee’s Brewing Justice about coffee farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico.  The largest labeling organizations, such as FLO and TransFair USA, publish statistics of how much money has gone to Fair Trade farmers.  Many FT vendors, like Ten Thousand Villages USA, have published stories of how FT has helped their suppliers.

However, all of these glimpses haven’t settled many disputes.  Last year we saw point and counterpoint in Europe from the Adam Smith Institute and Alastair Smith, author of a publication funded by the Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society.  Just last month several Fair Trade advocates wrote letters disagreeing with Jacob Levin’s article in an Indiana Univesity student publication, The Ryder.

Options to carry out the research seem to include Fair Trade businesses, academics, think tanks, labeling or certification organizations, international development agencies, government economists and others.  Since Fair Trade means considerably different things to different people, it would be difficult to study all important definitions and methods.  However, a lot of progress could come from thorough research into one or two widely accepted versions.

In all versions, the stated beneficiaries of FT are the vulnernable farmers and artisans, who certainly can’t be expected to pay for such research.  As for many initiatives that are created to benefit marginalized people, charitable foundations and government agencies, in partnership with interest groups (FT associations, free market outfits), should fund academics to do such work.  If successful, these stakeholders would save us future energy debating the merits of FT, so we can invest it in whatever ways best empower those with few opportunities.  If this suggestion is good, where have they been?


  1. Cheryl Musch - SERRV

    This is certainly an issue many of us have been grappling with for years. Although many of us see the advantage of research and documentation, for the most part, northern FT organizations are resource limited. Even if academics do receive funding, I don’t know that we’ll ever really be in a position where these questions will not continue since every FT producer and every FT buyer is unique.

  2. Jeff, I agree that research and data are important and add to the credibility of the FT movement. My question is how do you quantify and/or register the impact of an uneducated woman getting money in her own hand for her weaving, using that money to send her daughter to school while at the same time organizing 60 other women in her village to do the same, that daughter going on to get her masters in Social work and then returning to her village to help continue her mothers grassroots “social work”. To me the ramifications of this one uneducated woman’s vision cannot be quantified. True, the status of women and their decision making abilities are changing due to her vision, her daughter and the lives of the other women weavers children are changing, the family structure is changing, their physical needs are being met and their level of empowerment is greatly improved…I suppose you can measure these but it has taken 24 years to realize these changes and it will take many more years to bring this one woman’s vision to its full fruition. I just don’t see how you quantify that or satisfy our US urge for seeing immediate results. It’s puzzling to me but if folks can figure out a way to do that long term research and present it to the world to show how FT works to change lives then more power to them! Denise

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