Buying a bar of chocolate, a pack of coffee… Picking this one over that one… “Bananas? Ah yes… Let me see the label… Shall we get those smaller ones?”
Over the last two decades or so, western consumers have wised up. They take it as read that what they once viewed as mundane choices are in fact a fraught proposition; that the product on the shelf comes with a hinterland of ethical concerns.
The notion that how one behaves in a supermarket has an aggregate impact on the well-being of those who make the stuff — and on the well-being of the planet — is now part of the progressive consensus. There is an understanding that shopping for groceries in the North is a butterfly-effect thing; that it can feed or starve mouths in the South, determine school enrollment and child mortality rates, sustain or destroy vital environments. Increasingly, the producer has a face. It is most often brown or black. It is the face of a fellow world citizen.
And it is this awareness — a familiarity born of globalization itself — that underpins fair trade. At some six billion dollars in 2010, fair trade is still a small fraction of the global trade in food and fiber. Yet this share continues to rise in double digits, even as purchasing power dips in Europe and North America. In the UK, fair trade covers up to half of all bagged sugar. In Switzerland, fair trade bananas are the norm. In The Netherlands, Parliament, ministerial offices and local authorities buy fair trade.
Expanding social consciences are certainly driving fair trade’s bright prospects. But so is the taste for slow food and organic produce. And by ricochet, so are food scares — most recently, Europe’s horse meat scandal. Ever-higher premiums are being placed on traceability: the public likes its supply chains short.
As befits all movements that come of age, fair trade has been critiqued from both right and left. It is, depending on whom you listen to, the way forward for all trade; a brake on free trade; a win-win for North and South; a con; a boon; not as fair as it claims to be.
Yet attitudes are not just about ideological bias: if fair trade means different things to different people, it is also because overall, its regulatory regime remains patchy. While Fair Trade International and the World Fair Trade Organization are influential groups, there is no global governing authority. Associations, some national and some regional, abound and overlap. If fair trade standards have one thing in common, it is that they are high.
This means, of course, that the bar for producers is also set high. Too high, perhaps, for those farmers whose goods might qualify, yet who are too small, too poor, too deprived of the right infrastructure and the legal tools to access even local, let alone international, markets.
How to make fair trade work for the most disenfranchised of farmers is the focus of a two-day debate sponsored by the International Development Law Organization in Rome. Participants — governments, NGOs, trade bodies — will be told of two Quechua-speaking mountain settlements, Rumicorral and Ambrosio Lasso. Both communities are in Ecuador. Both are so remote and culturally estranged from the Ecuadorean mainstream that they have only been able to trade, in effect, with themselves. What little produce they sold to outsiders has been routed through intermediaries, at extortionate rates.
In both places, lack of access to markets has perpetuated a hellish cycle of poverty and undernourishment. There is corn in Rumicorral and Ambrosio Lasso, and there are potatoes, and goats, and pigs, almost all organic. But there is hardly any education, and not much law to sustain commerce. Or there wasn’t, at least, until IDLO came in, supported by funding from Rome and goodwill from Quito.
“There is a Quechua concept of ‘living in plenitude,’ says Rodrigo Naranjo Guamán, a young indigenous lawyer working with IDLO. “It implies overall harmony. But there’s been none of that here: resources, the land — nothing has been used adequately. These communities were yearning for the kind of knowledge that would keep the young from migrating in search of work...”
With the right dose of legal empowerment, IDLO believes, the people of Rumicorral and Ambrosio Lasso could use fair trade to pull themselves out of destitution. Lack of knowledge has certainly held them back: if they had social rights, no one had told them. But they, and similar communities elsewhere, are also facing hurdles rooted in governance systems. These typically include restrictive licensing regulations, lack of legal services to register cooperatives, weak enforcement of social and environmental standards, and poor access to finance.
“The law can be an obstacle, but it can also have a crucial role in creating a more just, equitable and accessible trading system,” says IDLO Director-General Irene Khan. In Ecuador, her organization has conducted rights-awareness courses, workshops on forming business associations and securing credit, and sessions on sustainable resource management. Early signs are that in both communities, a can-do attitude is starting to take hold, as legal barriers to entrepreneurship are removed one by one. “The first phase of the program has given people the hope than they can finally be heard,” says the lawyer, Mr Naranjo. “They are eager to enter the fair trade market and shape a better future for themselves.”
In Rumicorral and Ambrosio Lasso, IDLO has used legal services as a communal leg-up of sorts. Yes, the organization seems to be saying, fair trade is a commendable system. But have its benefits trickled down far enough? Are the right regulations in place to bring its premium markets within reach of all poor farming communities? When the trading potential of even the most disenfranchised has been tapped — only then will we have unleashed fair trade’s life-changing power.