Fair Trade USA’s Big Change

Bruce Mckinnon is the director of Mission Brand which provides strategy tools for organizations primarily in the fair trade movement. Bruce started in fair trade in 1993 by developing the marketing to launch Cafedirect, the UK’s first fair trade coffee brand. After 4 years he joined Equal Exchange to evolve their brand and build their first marketing department. Bruce’s time in the movement, combined with his work in both the US and UK has given him a unique perspective that he hopes offers pioneer brands real value.

The following is a reflection from a trip to California and a recent meeting with Fair Trade USA.

Fair Trade USA has a single minded focus. To use fair trade as a tool to reduce poverty. And the fastest way to impact that poverty is to maximize the volume of fair trade – in effect: more fair trade equals less poverty. Viewed through this lens, Fair Trade USA’s commitment to widen the beneficiaries of fair trade coffee from small farmer co-ops to small farms and large plantations is understandable.

And of course, the best way to deliver volume is to work with those companies who can offer those volumes – large global corporations. So by splitting from FLO, Paul Rice and his team’s ambition may well be to create a certification system that is more corporate led, operates more efficiently than the current bureaucracy laden FLO, is less politicized and can compete on equal terms with other businesses like IMO, Utz Cafe and Rainforest Alliance et al for new customers.

By focussing on corporates as a core customer, Fair Trade USA is aligning itself to the current system of trade which if successful, may well deliver a slightly more benevolent system that might indeed reduce poverty.

But it won’t change the system. And changing the system, changing the way we trade, is why fair trade was established. To create change.

Change in the supply chain, change in delivering new markets to marginalized farmers,  change in capacity of small farmers to access credit, change in consumers understanding of the influence (for good) they yield, change in fact to the market structures and systems that perpetuate that poverty.

And it’s this schism in ‘the movement’ that is creating all the headlines – in the ghetto at least.

(But this is not new news, in fact some would say that this all started back in the nineties when tea, fair trade’s third product was certified. That by using existing supply chains (i.e.plantations) to deliver impact through volume, and not building new ones (i.e. small tea farms) to deliver volume through impact, the seeds of this schism were sown.)

So one could say that the imminent appearance of Fair Trade USA’s ‘fairtrade certified’ labels on many of the world’s biggest brands in many of the world’s supermarket aisles finally acknowledges the elephant in the room. Namely that by having Nestle and Cafedirect, Cadburys and Divine, Starbucks and Equal Exchange all under the same label apparently doing the same thing was dishonoring the intent, commitment and beliefs of pioneer brands and their small farmer partners who set out to change the world.

And for that we should be very very excited,  because for pioneer brands this is an immense opportunity.

Because this change will mean more competition coming into the market with the breaking up of the ‘FLO monopoly’; more confusion, with consumers struggling to keep up with the new certification labels; more certifiers, but with (thankfully) less influence; more volume, but paradoxically with the chance of less impact on the ground and of course, more companies becoming 100% fair trade (the corporate friendly type that is).

And for pioneer brand’s, who go way beyond the cleansed and simplified (and now largely redundant)  message of ‘we pay more’ the opportunity is to harness the rich and complex messages of market access, long term relationships, farmer ownership and empowerment, the provision of credit and the development of capacity building into a truly differentiating and compelling message that can once again have a chance of changing the world.

Whilst this will be a daunting task, what this schism as done is to create the space again for pioneer brands to demonstrate the integrity – the wholeness – of their intent. To pursue change at all costs.

Fair trade is dead. Long live fair trade!

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