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March 19, 2007

Putting 'fair trade' principles to work

Our article on progressive responses to the prevailing free-trade agenda concluded with a note of uncertainty: a workable alternative has yet to emerge in the debate over US trade policy. At least not in official arenas.

But we did come across efforts outside the Beltway to move toward a more sustainable trade model, showing that the fair-trade system may be bearing fruit on a grassroots level. Though it has yet to boom on a global scale, we thought our readers might appreciate a glimpse (or a second-look, if you’re already a fair-trade consumer) into this ripening side-story.

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While Washington is buzzing around so-called "free-trade" agreements, some of the "fair-trade" movement’s most visible successes have emerged not in legislative chambers but on grocery-store shelves.

Mostly led by networks of private businesses, fair-trade enterprises in various countries have capitalized on ideas of "social responsibility." Though the market is still limited, these community-based initiatives have made small strides in linking US consumers with producers committed to fair-trade principles.

"Fair trade" commerce involves the sale of goods, like coffee and chocolate, that have been certified as produced while adhering to certain environmental principles, labor standards and other ethical benchmarks. Proponents say the system provides producers and their communities with a much more sustainable source of income than ordinary sales do.

Todd Larsen of Co-op America – self-described as a network of "socially and environmentally responsible businesses" – said that while fair-trade operations are relatively small scale compared to mainstream corporate product lines, the system is powerful precisely because it "bypasses those elites."

In a trade arrangement between, for example, a local community and a coffee co-op in Central America, he said, "there’s a direct relationship between importers in the United States and producers and developing countries to make sure that there are fair terms for purchasing their products." Fair trade’s impact, he continued, "beyond directly helping people that it helps, is to provide moral case for an alternative to typical free-trade practices, and it’s out there as a symbol of what could be done."

According to Global Exchange, an activist group that promotes fair trade, the fair-trade agricultural market currently "benefits over 800,000 farmers organized into cooperatives and unions in 48 countries."

Still, groups pushing for more systemic changes in the global economy say that for fair-trade to work worldwide, official international institutions must be in place to manage commerce and enforce standards.

Ted Lewis, founder of Global Exchange’s Mexico program, said that while fair-trade enterprises help raise community awareness, "experiments like that... can’t possibly compete with the official model. It’s mostly based on consumer generosity, which is a good thing, but it’s not something that you can really put in the bank in a big way."

Making socially responsible trade a bankable enterprise, he said, would require an overhaul of international bodies like the World Trade Organization and World Bank, which currently steer economic change in poorer nations.

Lewis added that activists have been largely alienated from policy discussions on global trade. So while the World Trade Organization ostensibly allows input from "civil society," the dominance of powerful corporate interests has foreclosed dialogue between policymaking institutions and grassroots initiatives.

"Part of the tragedy of the way things have been organized, and the corporate takeover of the political process around all this," he said, "is that the possible forums for coming to real social consensus on these things have been dried up."

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Feel free to give your two cents on trade policy in our comments section. What does "fair trade" mean to you as a consumer, or perhaps as an activist? Do grassroots efforts provide a sustainable model, and what role should international institutions play in setting the rules of global trade?

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.