Fair Trade USA, growing and still controversial

fairtrade_6833958232_076a8a019b_bFair Trade is an elegant idea. It’s an attempt to make globalization work for the world’s poor. Those of us in rich countries agree to pay a bit more for whatever it is we are buying — coffee is by far the No. 1 Fair Trade commodity — and, in exchange, we are assured that the farmers and workers at the other end of the supply chain are treated fairly.

If only it were that simple.

Today, in the US, there are no fewer than seven Fair Trade and Fair Trade-like labels. You can find an analysis of them here, if you so choose. The trouble is, they are competing in what remains by any measure a niche market.

Paul Rice, the founder of Fair Trade USA, formerly Transfair, wants to change that. I went to see him last week in Oakland, CA., and wrote about his efforts the other day in a story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Paul Rice, the hard-charging CEO of nonprofit Fair Trade USA, recently toured the Brooklyn headquarters of furniture company West Elm, along with former president Bill Clinton and West Elm’s president, Jim Brett. They were there to celebrate West Elm’s commitment to handcraft products, including the first Fairtrade rugs, which are made in India. “You can have a huge impact on the wage structure in India,” Clinton enthused. “Consumers will buy these. They’re beautiful, besides.”

Fairtrade rugs? What’s next? A lot more than coffee in church basements, it turns out. “We’re talking about furniture, we’re talking about linens, we’re talking about all kinds of things,” says Rice, when we met last week at Fair Trade USA’s offices in Oakland, California. “This move into the manufacturing sector puts us on the threshold of something really big.”

Fair Trade USA is in fast-growth mode. This fall, Patagonia and PACTwill begin selling Fairtrade apparel, made in factories that they say will meet strict environmental and social standards; a small company called Oliberté already sells Fairtrade shoes. Several years ago, Fair Trade USA formed a partnership with a nonprofit startup called Good World Solutions, which has developed mobile technology to connect big companies to the farmers and workers in their supply chains. Meantime, Fair Trade USA is working to certify a bell pepper farm in British Columbia, Canada, expanding the movement beyond its roots in the global south.

This flurry of activity has brought Rice lots of attention, some of it unwelcome. His supporters say that he works tirelessly to expand the impact of fair trade. Critics accuse him of abandoning its principles. As Jonathan Rosenthal, a co-founder of the co-op Equal Exchange, told The Nation: “Paul is not afraid to think and act on a big scale. That’s one of his great gifts. And he’s willing to cut any corners to get there. That, to me, is one of his great faults.”

The disagreements about what constitutes authentic Fair Trade can get pretty arcane pretty quickly. Some people, for example, argue that a chocolate bar should not be labeled Fair Trade unless the chocolate and the sugar were both procured from worker owned co-ops; others say the chocolate alone should do it. Small differences often matter, but in this arena, it seems to me that the priority ought to be growing the idea and practice of Fair Trade, even if compromises must be made along the way. As the movement grows, the bar can be lifted.

If you want to know more, see my 2012 blogpost, A schism over Fair Trade. You can read the rest of my Guardian story here.

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