12 August, 2014

The Fairtrade Mark at 20: looking back on where we’ve come

by Ian Bretman, Head of Commercial Relations at the Fairtrade Foundation (1997 to 2001) and then Deputy Director until 2008.

As the Fairtrade Foundation celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Fairtrade Mark, Ian Bretman, independent advisor to three Fairtrade Producer Networks, takes a look back.

Ian Bretman"I have been privileged to work for the Fairtrade Foundation for most of its history, and to have been involved with the movement even before the launch of the Fairtrade Mark, in 1994.

My journey began back in 1988 when I was working for Oxfam and trying to find ideas for how we could help the millions of coffee farmers whose livelihoods had been devastated by the collapse – as part of a dogmatic, free trade agenda – of the international agreement that had maintained a stable price for coffee for decades.

Even though Oxfam had established a moderately successful business selling fairly traded handicrafts and food products through its shops and mail order catalogues, this was dwarfed by the scale of the challenge. It was then that I learned about a new initiative in the Netherlands that had overcome these problems by working with the market to channel consumer demand in a way that enabled farmers to receive a better deal.

They had created a seal that consumers could seek out on products that complied with the rules they had drawn up for the scheme and they were busy promoting this to companies and consumers. Not only had they come up with a visionary approach to bring fair trade to the mainstream but they were generous enough to invite other organisations to take their idea and develop it in their own countries.

A few years later that led to the setting-up of the Fairtrade Foundation by a coalition of anti-poverty campaigners, and thanks to a combination of passion, persistence and persuasion that has been evident in campaigns like the annual Fairtrade Fortnight (we seem to have had an early penchant for alliteration), the Fairtrade Mark has become the most widely recognised ethical label in the world.

That concept, of helping to articulate the desire of citizens for fairer trade into effective consumer demand and working with businesses to help them respond has been a constant model in Fairtrade, and many other factors remain unchanged. Fairtrade still has a minimum price for most products that offers producers a shelter from volatile market conditions and gives them the confidence to invest in their businesses.

Fairtrade standards define a premium that is paid to producer organisations by the first buyer in the chain that is used for improvements on farms, within organisations and in the wider community. The Fairtrade premium is a fund that is managed democratically by farmers and workers, giving them a voice, sometimes for the first time in their lives, in decisions about their future.

Co-operatives of small farmers and plantations employing large number of workers still have to meet tough standards to join the scheme and are regularly audited by an independent certifier.

Of course, these standards have evolved as Fairtrade has expanded beyond coffee, tea and cocoa. We’ve been able to extend our reach to more farmers and workers with products like bananas, cut flowers, cotton and even gold. All of these products are produced and traded in different ways so Fairtrade has taken its principles (which remain constant) but applied them in practical ways that are specific to those sectors.

Fairtrade standards are also non-negotiable. The reason why it took such a long time for big business to come on board was because we wouldn’t compromise on our standards. For years my colleagues and I had to field criticisms about our focus on small farmer co-operatives, our minimum price and premium and so on. We were accused of being well-meaning but “economically illiterate”. Now most of the leading global food businesses have accepted that the future survival of their businesses depends on farmers and farm workers being able to earn a decent living.

Of course, there is still a lot to be done to change the way the world does business, including the banana supermarket ‘price wars’ and corporate power over our food. As a movement we are going to have to find new ways of tackling these challenges but we will do that by holding firm to the values and principles that have seen us through the past 20 years, and the passion and commitment of people to achieve change. More often these days however we seem to be sailing with the wind rather than against it.

That shift has brought a whole new set of challenges and we’ve had to deal with practical issues and make hard choices about priorities and resources. Some of our stakeholders urged us to invest in new products like flowers, cotton and gold while others have urged a more narrow focus while there is work still to be done in products like coffee, tea and cocoa. Some encouraged us to build a mainstream presence while others think that we should stand apart from the conventional market and support alternatives like the Solidarity Economy.

Sometimes we get caught up in these debates about tactics and lose sight of the common vision that unites us instead of celebrating the diversity of the movement which is one oif its greate strengths. I think there are similarities here with the US civil rights movement. We should remember their advice to “keep your eyes on the prize”.

So, the Fairtrade Mark at 20. Older? Well that’s inevitable. Wiser? Absolutely - the Fairtrade Mark embodies the collective experience of farmers, workers, campaigners and committed traders who have been part of the journey. That’s why it’s so important that we have a governance system in which Fairtrade producer organisations (through their regional networks) have an equal voice with the organisations, like Fairtrade Foundation, that represent stakeholders in the big markets.

Still young enough to be passionate about trade justice and still keeping our eyes on the prize of making trade and markets work for people rather than the other way round? You bet! Here’s to the next 20 years of the fighting, fit and fabulous (did I mention that we like alliteration?) Fairtrade Mark.”

Ian Bretman was head of commercial relations at the Fairtrade Foundation from 1997 to 2001 and then deputy director until 2008. He then served as the executive vice-chair of Fairtrade International until 2012. He currently works as an independent advisor to the three Fairtrade Producer Networks in Africa/Middle East, Asia/Pacific and Latin America/Caribbean.

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