Saturday, July 05, 2008

Is it Alright to Promote "Domestic" Fair Trade?

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I caught up on reading and blogging during this holiday weekend. I see from a listserv that the Farm Labor Organizing Committee has organized a campaign asking the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company to be more transparent about their corporate structure so that advocates can effectively work to secure labor rights. Tens of thousands of farm workers in the Southeast plant, tend, and harvest tobacco for RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, but apparently the tobacco giant isn't willing to work with farm worker representatives of FLOC.

When I directed an AmeriCorps and EPA funded farmworker safety project I learned that tobacco sickness--which is basically a condition that comes from being exposed to tobacco--was one of the most prevalent illnesses farmworkers faced on a regular basis. That is in addition to pesticide exposure and concerns like dehydration. These kind of "safe and healthy working condition" issues that the working poor face in the United States seem to me a great opportunity to uplift Fair Trade principles and practices as an alternative way to do business. In fact, the Domestic Fair Trade Association works to "
contribute to a movement for fairness, equity and sustainability that supports family-scale farming, farmer-led initiatives such as farmer co-operatives, just conditions for farm workers, and the strengthening of the organic agriculture movement." Companies like Equal Exchange are promoting domestic products such as pecans from my old stomping grounds of Georgia. For many years now, groups like SERRV have offered handmade products from projects such as The Enterprising Kitchen in Chicago, which helps low-income urban women succeed in the U.S. workforce.

But, for some advocates the declaration of these initiatives as "Fair Trade" blurs the distinctions around the "true" meaning of Fair Trade: partnerships to help the global south gain market access, restore equity in international trading practices, empower small-scale entrepreneurs etc. As a friend and colleague once put it (this is a paraphrase), "The needs of the American family farmer are of great concern, but somebody in Iowa struggling to make his payments on a tractor isn't suffering like a farmer in Bangladesh. The farmer in Bangladesh is who Fair Trade is concerned with."

This reminds me of a recent couple of articles in, where some advocates (myself included) were quoted about whether or not Fair Trade standards are being watered down. Case in point was the entry of plantations--including those run by suspect companies such as Chiquita--into the Fair Trade system. Some advocates are concerned that mechanisms that stray from the original practices of Fair Trade, in this case small scale farming, dilute the power of Fair Trade and drift from the alternative nature of the system.

To me, it seems that we need to apply Fair Trade principles to the case of oppressed farmworkers in North Carolina and to landless plantation workers in Latin America. Doing so broadens our fight for economic justice. At the same time, we need to highlight and buy from those companies, such as Oke Bananas, which focus on farmer ownership and power sharing. It doesn't seem to me that we have to be exclusive in our efforts.

Perhaps this is naive or falling into the trap of "Fair Trade Lite." What do you think?


  1. Jackie:
    Good points.
    As a member of the Domestic Fair Trade Steering Committee, I'm feeling confident that this movement will bring about greater levels of fairness, transparency and improved consumer choice. In my case, as the organic movement transforms from a grassroots bottom up movement toward a corporate factory farm model, Fair Trade (Domestic or International) allows me to differentiate my products among "values" consumers. It's so much more than whether a farmer in Iowa is having trouble making his tractor payment. DFT standards cover issues of social justice from labor rights and working conditions of the farm worker to the food co-op employee stocking the shelf. So to answer your question, yes, it's alright to promote "Domestic" Fair Trade. And I'd go further to say, not only is it alright, but it's the right thing to do.

    Timothy Young
    Food For Thought

  2. Thanks for speaking up Timothy.

    Coincidentally I was just in Michigan and doing some events with Jody of Higher Grounds coffee. She mentioned your work, although I hadn't heard about the DFTSC since it first launched. I appreciate knowing who to go to directly with more queries in the future and I appreciate your work and vision!