Learning From The Fair Trade Movement
The Fair Trade movement has its roots in the 1960s and 70s with “Alternative Trade Organizations,” which were nonprofits selling handicrafts, gifts, food, and other goods from developing countries, focusing on direct relationships with producers. These morphed into “fair trade” organizations in the 1980s, such as Equal Exchange in the United States. or Campaign Coffee in the United Kingdom. The 1990s and 2000s saw significant growth in Fair Trade and a focus on product certification and mainstream distribution, rather than selling goods in specialty shops. This also coincided with a shift away from handicrafts and gifts towards foodstuffs, particularly coffee and chocolate. Fair Trade products were normalized in grocery stores, on college campuses, and even in government purchasing. Fair Trade product sales grew from just under $1Bn USD in 2004 to $11.63Bn in 2018 – over tenfold growth, but still less than 1% of overall international trade.
This study from the Sentience Institute is a review of the Fair Trade movement’s successes and failures and how they may relate to other movements centered around ethical consumption, like veganism and vegetarianism. It’s worth noting that for all its positive aspects, there is still significant debate among experts as to its efficacy. While prices received by producers in Fair Trade are higher than conventional trade, this does not always translate into increased wages for laborers in the production process, and the price floor set by fair trade certifiers has lost much of its value. There is also significant concern about the movement being co-opted – turning into a widely accepted label that makes consumers feel good but does nothing for the people it is intended to help.
The study notes that there are several key takeaways for farmed animal advocacy. First, the focus should be on binary (yes/no) certifications over flexible ones, as flexible certifications encourage companies to do as little as possible to retain the certification while maximizing their own profits. This could be relevant regarding food being labeled as “plant-based” — a vague term that has been used to refer to completely vegan products, products containing egg/dairy, and even meat products cut with plant-based substitutes. The lack of official definition confuses consumers and enables producers to take advantage of that confusion while doing little to change their behavior.
Pursuing a clear certification process for foods advertised as “plant-based” would be a good goal for the farmed animal movement to avoid the term being co-opted and losing significance, as has occurred with “cage free,” “free range” and other welfare-based marketing terms. Furthermore, the authors of this study find that competing certifications weakened the Fair Trade label, and that a unified approach has a better chance at success. They go on to note that international standards may be seen as more credible than local or national ones. The anti-animal testing movement may also serve as a model for the anti-animal agriculture movement, with certification schemes like Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny program: an international standard for cosmetics and household cleaning products which is applied only to brands that do not perform and are not a party to any animal testing in their supply chain.
The Fair Trade movement is far from a clear success, but its shortcomings may be important in influencing other certification schemes for consumer products and foodstuffs. The authors of this review have provided a strong analysis of the movement’s strengths and weaknesses, and these should be studied by animal advocates interested in providing a clear certification program for goods made without animal products or animal testing. The certification process should clearly delineate what the label means for the product, be it welfare standards for animals or the presence of animal-derived foods. To avoid the terms becoming co-opted and losing Strict, binary, international programs are likely going to be the strongest option available for such a purpose, and organizations should keep this in mind when lobbying governments or businesses to create new standards or modify existing ones.