Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Rights-Based Approach to Fair Trade: The Onus of Responsibility

Globally, Fair Trade is a movement for international trade justice. For producers, artisans, weavers, farmers, and craftswomen and men around the world it is an ethical business model which empowers disadvantaged communities with practices that are free from exploitation; is based on respect for universal human rights, women's rights, child rights, migrant rights, rights of the disabled and labour rights; embraces gender equity; and which incorporates environmentally sound practices. 

Fair Trade has been established as a means to alleviate poverty by providing economic opportunities for disadvantaged communities. The cause for most groups to be economically disadvantaged often starts with various forms of discrimination, hence the importance of addressing these communities. Discrimination can be based on:
  • Gender 
  • Race or Ethnicity 
  • Religion 
  • Disability 
  • Age 
  • Class 
  • Sexuality
Human Rights Day:
December 10, 2011

A Rights-Based Approach
In the field of International Development, programs and projects are often designed to target root causes. When an organization utilizes a Rights-Based Approach they recognize poverty as injustice and includes marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation as central causes of poverty.

As Fair Trade buyers of handicrafts, textiles and consumable products such as coffee or chocolate, it is nice to believe that we are leading the way in making ethical consumer choices a reality in the global marketplace. However, for producers, artisans, weavers, farmers, and craftswomen and men without a concrete understanding of these principles, rights and practices it is not possible for them to fulfill their role as Catalysts for Social Change in their communities. Simply stated, they are not empowered with an understanding of what Fair Trade is; how it is intended to benefit them and their communities; or the rationale for introducing ethical business practices. For Fair Trade to be ensured throughout the supply chain, producers must be brought into the fold.

But to integrate a Rights-Based Approach seems a near impossible task when admittedly, there is a low level of awareness amongst the artisans, weavers, farmers, and craftswomen and men engaged in Fair Trade. This must change if Fair Trade is to be sustainable well into the future! 

The first issue to be addressed is to inquire as to why a low level of awareness exists amongst those whom Fair Trade is intended to benefit.

As I wrote in January of 2011, Upon initiating this Journey for Fair Trade I had an email correspondence with Rodney North, the “Answer Man” of Equal Exchange. For over two decades this organization has been empowering farmers and producers through fairly traded coffee, tea, bananas and chocolate. He wrote of their experience in relation to my travels; “for what it’s worth – in our 24 yrs in the Fair Trade movement we’ve found that, by & large, individual farmers who are members of co-ops that export Fair Trade coffee or tea or sugar often have very little awareness of Fair Trade, and that this actually makes sense upon closer inspection. Conversely the professional staff of those same co-ops (the managers & other paid staff who process, market, export the coffee etc or do quality control and have regular contact with foreign buyers) often know much more about Fair Trade (as well about the other certification schemes their co-op uses – Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, Ethical Tea Partnership, etc).

This lack of awareness by the co-op members will be lowest when their co-op only sells a small portion of its production to Fair Trade buyers and will be higher – usually – if the co-op sells a lot to Fair Trade buyers. Other variables will be how long the co-op has been selling to the Fair Trade market, how much of a price difference those Fair Trade sales make, and how much direct contact the co-op members have w/ Fair Trade buyers. E.g. at a very remote/unvisited co-op the farmers/workers will generally have that much less awareness of Fair Trade.

To help increase the level of awareness of Fair Trade amongst coffee farmers in Guatemala we’ve given two grants to a non-profit, Cultural Survival, in recent years to produce radio programs on Fair Trade (& other topics) to be broadcast in multiple languages across a network of micro-radio stations in that country. To our knowledge this is a rare effort. 

I have to admit that before and during the Journey for Fair Trade, I encountered the same obstacles Rodney North listed and generally for the same reasons. However, this is inexcusable. 

Fair Trade cannot be a northern concept for northern markets – it has to be localized in the local communities of southern markets if Fair Trade is to be sustainable, and to do that requires a concerted and unified effort with the producers!

Look at this from the perspective of utilizing the established Principles:

Principle 1: Creating Opportunities for Economically Disadvantaged Producers.
Poverty reduction through trade forms a key part of the organization's aims. The organization supports marginalized small producers, whether these are independent family businesses, or grouped in associations or co-operatives. It seeks to enable them to move from income insecurity and poverty to economic self-sufficiency and ownership. The organization has a plan of action to carry this out. 

My question here is simple: 

Unless the producers comprehend the cornerstones of Fair Trade, how are they enabled to move to economic self-sufficiency? Change can only occur when Fair Trade producers are empowered to bring change locally.

To empower producers they must have full knowledge of Fair Trade principles, understand their rights, and able to implement ethical business practices. However, for many producer groups there needs to be a well planned, comprehensive training program provided to facilitate this empowerment process.  

But who is responsible to sponsor or provide a training program in Fair Trade principles for producers?

Principle 4: Fair Trading Practices states, “The organization maintains long term relationships based on solidarity, trust and mutual respect that contribute to the promotion and growth of Fair Trade.”

Understandably, long-term relationships which contribute to the expansion of Fair Trade must include Capacity Building of trade partners. 

Principle 8: Providing Capacity Building states, “Organizations working directly with small producers develop specific activities to help these producers improve their management skills, production capabilities and access to markets local / regional / international / Fair Trade and mainstream as appropriate. Organizations which buy Fair Trade products through Fair Trade intermediaries in the South assist these organizations to develop their capacity to support the marginalized producer groups that they work with."

Clearly the onus for ensuring producers are empowered through knowledge of Fair Trade is on their trade partners: importers, buyers, wholesalers and retailers all share this responsibility!!! 

For producers Fair Trade is a partnership, not a charity. It is the responsibility of Fair Trade importers, wholesalers, buyers, and retailers to provide for the development of producer groups in order that they are empowered, self-sufficient trade partners capable of conducting international trade in ways which are beneficial to them and their community free from any form of exploitation! 

However, simply emailing a copy of the ten principles of Fair Trade in their language is not fulfilling the requirement to conduct, sponsor or facilitate a well planned, comprehensive training program. More needs to be included.... much more if Fair Trade is to be sustainable. Remember, our trade partners are coming from disadvantaged communities and for many the concepts embraced in Fair Trade are not only new and unfamiliar, but in some cases may be very foreign. The same goes for common business practices in a community.

In rural communities where many of the world's Fair Trade producers reside, I have found that local government officials are influential in establishing a social norm through their actions. For example, in localities where government corruption is a major impediment to national development, the concepts of Transparency and Accountability can be viewed as a threat and needs to be explained clearly and able to convey why this is important in Fair Trade.  

With the responsibility of providing capacity building clearly established in our shared Fair Trade Principles, the next question is: What does in mean to integrate a Rights-Based Approach? This will be the subject of the next blog post...

Mitch Teberg, MA 
International Consultant
Sustainable Development / Fair Trade
Researcher / Trainer / Consultant 

For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable version of this post on pdf: 
A Rights-Based Approach to Fair Trade - The Onus of Responsibility

1 comment:

  1. Mitch, this is all very nice in theory, but here in Malaysia as a lone Fair Trader and as I battle against a system of commerce/business that in its very essence is opposed to every single element of Fair Trade principles, I can understand how powerless the artisans you refer to must feel. The business systems here in Malaysia are well entrenched, and for good reason if you are one of those benefiting. These people are powerful.

    Asking producers to bring about change locally is a big reality, if you stick you head up and shout too loudly against a lot of these entrenched practices, you will soon be dealt with and knocked back into line. Artisans and many producers are not in a strong bargaining position.

    NGOs and the well meaning importers may have a lot of warm fuzzies running training programs, but does anything actually change for producers/artisans? Probably not. The system of commerce that exists is still in place.

    As I sit and look at the impossibility of the Malaysian system (now I know why this is one of the few SE Asian countries where Fair Trade has not been established) I think it will require a bit more than capacity development to have any impact.

    And one should also ask what support WFTO offers?