Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fair Trade Bug Repellent? Says Who?

I did some shopping this weekend, and I got a surprise at Whole Foods. My local store finally got Fair Trade certified bananas! While they weren't from my preferred brand, Oke, I decided to buy a bunch. This was my effort to register with the store manager that I am glad she or he paid attention to those comment cards I placed in the suggestion box. The voice inside my head, though, started to chide, “Are those bananas from plantations, or small family farmers?”

Ignoring that din because, hey, it was a three-day weekend, I headed to a local nursery in search of my favorite tomato plant. At the counter, a display proclaiming Fair Trade citronella caught my eye. A company was trying to get me to buy a "Brazilian twist" on inspect repellent. Apparently the company is a big supporter of "community trade." (Again the voices in my head: "oh, lord, not another type of trade!") Apparently I could avoid bugs AND do right by the indigenous people of the Amazonian rain forest. I picked up a brochure but not any products.

Now that I am settled back at home, I see from the company materials that they do seem to push all the right buttons around supporting the "tribes of the Amazon Co-op." Because the company buys the natural oils and medicinal plants that end up in its incense and candles, the community has an establish trading partner. The company is concerned with community needs like dental clinics and schools. Because all the harvesting is sustainable, the company is also very green and doing its part to help the planet and its people.

Or so the marketing materials want me to believe. Now, let me be clear, I know nothing about this company besides what its promotional materials tell me. But my critical eye is noticing a couple of nuances. First off, like most of us, I am interested in quality. But on closer inspection the product I was interested in is not really being sold. The “point of purchase” materials tout citronella, which I think most of us agree suggests, “bug repellent.” Yet the product descriptions say nothing about keeping bugs away, only about achieving “peaceful patio environments.”

And, what about the "community trade" and this Amazon co-op? If the products are “fair” that implies a fair price was paid to the farmers and gatherers of the rain forest plants. In the Fair Trade system, these wages and premiums would be distributed through a democratic association structure. Fair Trade co-ops are usually affiliated with an umbrella group such as the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) or the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations. Yet no such affiliations were made on the materials. How do I know that the Amazon co-op isn’t just a creation of the company, kind of life an off shore bank, that allows it to make claims about its social responsibility values?

When I was at Whole Foods, the bananas had a label from TransFair USA indicating that the value chain that brought that piece of fruit from a Colombian farm had been independently certified to meet internationally agreed upon standards. A few aisles away there was a kiosk for Fair Trade crafts and the company, World of Good, noted on its sign that it was a member of the WFTO. Those signifiers—while not guaranteeing perfection in a value chain—allowed me to have some confidence about the companies I was doing business with.

One of the bright sides of our economic crisis has been a marked appreciation for the role of regulation in our financial institutions. We have seen—tragically in some cases—what happens when the logic of the market and the imperatives of profit making are allowed to reign free of limits and scrutiny. In economic justice movements, too, we need mechanisms for setting standards and verifying claims. A label or a seal won’t tell you everything—like who owns the bananas I bought this weekend—but these markers do give you some guidance in deciphering promotional claims. Our Fair Trade institutions exist to keep the movement honest and strong. Pretty promotional materials and carefully chosen buzz words don’t get us closer to fair and sustainable trade, rules and regulations do.

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