Fair Trade is a movement that has been gathering momentum over the years: from its humble beginnings as Oxfam’s ‘helping-by-selling’ program in the ’60s to today, it has grown into a multi-billion-euro enterprise affecting the lives of millions of people. Fair Trade is acquiring a definitive niche in the public consciousness; even large brands with questionable human rights records are joining the movement: notable examples being Nestlé, which has been allowed to label all its Kitkats in the United Kingdom as Fair Trade, and Starbucks, which has committed itself to using only Fair Trade Certified coffee in its espresso-based drinks in the UK.
However, there are differences in opinion within the Fair Trade movement as to whether these new territorial conquests by the Fair Trade movement are indeed a good thing. What does it mean for Fair Trade to negotiate with these enormous companies, which have mostly arrived at their current position by ruthlessly pursuing profit, often at the expense of their producers? Such an attitude runs, to say the least, a bit against the grain of the Fair Trade movement. But does Fair Trade have to get involved with these companies in order to grow? As Daniel Jaffee puts it somewhat dramatically in his book Brewing Justice, does the Fair Trade movement have to ‘dance with the devil’? And if it does dance, can it do so without selling out?
On one hand, it is the case that the success of Fair Trade depends on the demand for Fair Trade products in the North, and that the number of people helped by Fair Trade depends on the quantity of Fair Trade products sold. It is also the case that large multinationals such as Nestlé and Starbucks cover an enormous proportion of the market for, say, chocolate and coffee, and are currently mostly selling products that are not Fair Trade. The solution seems obvious: if these companies could be persuaded, cajoled or coerced to use certified Fair Trade products, surely the benefits for the producers in the South would be enormous?
On the other hand, there are many arguments against certifying large multinationals. Firstly, one could argue on principle: certifying large multinationals could be considered a betrayal of the core principles of the Fair Trade movement, which was set up to protect the rights of marginalised producers precisely in response to the unethical activity of these companies. Fair trade was set up to ensure decent living conditions at every level; it was envisaged as an alternative to corporate domination, not as a niche market to be conquered by the very corporations it was trying to undermine.
Secondly, one could argue that as soon as large companies are allowed to join the movement, the rules of the game start to change. Several motions have in the last decade been introduced by the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO) to lower the standards of what constitutes Fair Trade; fortunately these have up till now failed. We can assume that such attempts to lower standards stem from corporate pressure. Another concern is the danger of ‘fair-washing’: a means whereby companies providing a comparatively tiny quantity of certified Fair Trade products can as a result be perceived by the public as ethical. Should a multinational with a history of human rights abuses selling a negligible amount of certified Fair Trade produce really be allowed to fair-wash its image by parading its Fair Trade certification mark? Additionally, if the same mark is assigned to both a fair-washed corporation and an independent cooperative that functions democratically, respecting human rights at every level, the value of the Fair Trade mark will be compromised. This could lead to public disillusionment compromising the entire movement.
Is there a correct answer? Should the Fair Trade movement opt to sacrifice some of its principles in order to increase the sheer bulk of Fair Trade produce? Or should it remain faithful to its principles and continue to oppose the large corporations while watching them violate human rights across the world? Or is there a third way?