Here's a bit of bad news that emerges, ironically, from a generally good-news situation. The meteoric rise of ethical consuming over the past decade has given rise to forces causing the first serious split in fair trade ranks in over 25 years.
As of January 2012, Fair Trade USA will complete its withdrawal from the international Fairtrade Labelling Organization, hoping to double sales through easier ties to larger and more corporate producers and retailers.
This may be the opening shot of the same kind of infighting that's plagued Big Organic over the last several years, a disappointing development in the $6-billion-a-year - and fast expanding - fair trade cause.
Just to reassure locals, Fairtrade Canada - the label that attests to production standards met by imports of chocolate, coffee, bananas, sugar, tea and other products - is not joining the walkout and might even benefit from supplying U.S. retailers who want products carrying the traditional fair trade seal of approval.
"Canada is not going along with the U.S.," Mike Zelmer of FTC tells me. "We believe in the international movement; we were founding members."
The discussion is all about the real meaning of fair trade contributions to sustainability and whether large corporations should qualify to get the fair trade stamp of excellence. Some argue, using the organic food parallel, that this is akin to the Walmart scenario, where the company sells local organic food in a retail context that duplicates the conventional food system and freezes out small producers - the great majority of the world's poor.
The World Fair Trade Organization, connected to the Fairtrade Labelling Organization, has charged the American group with valuing U.S. sales of products over the welfare of producers. "The WFTO believes the interests of producers, especially small farmers and artisans, should be the main focus within the fair trade movement," their statement reads.
Fair Trade USA, on the other hand, says it seeks to double U.S. sales to $2 billion by 2015 by developing its own certification system, which is likely to pry open the doors to large farms and plantation methods of growing cacao and coffee, both of which have traditionally been managed in diverse forests by small producers.
The organization calls its initiative Fair Trade For All and says it aims to expand eligibility, thus extending benefits to workers excluded by the previous focus on worker co-ops. The group hopes to make it easy for bigger players to commit to fair trade, a shift which, in turn, will grow consumer interest in fair trade.
It's important to note that fair trade wasn't an overnight success. Back in 1988, when I first started writing regularly for NOW, I'd wend my way through a rabbit warren of desks to sell a dozen or so bags of fair trade coffee I'd just picked up at a church-basement Oxfam outlet.
Beginning in the Netherlands, fair trade orgs sprang up around the world at this time to market food products from developing economies through food stores, rather than counting on customers who happened to know which craft stores and church basements had fair trade coffee. This preliminary network launched the skyrocketing retail success of fair trade.
The growth of ethical consuming demonstrates the way change happens at the margins. Fair trade goods are mainly treats and indulgences, not everyday necessities, producing a customer base that is quite self-conscious and even guilt-ridden, especially if products like chocolate are associated with child labour or even slavery.
Although less than 10 companies - the likes of Kraft (which recently chowed down on Cadbury), Nestle and Mars - control the candy and coffee market, they're all vulnerable to catastrophic risk from weather changes or labour unrest. In 2008, harsh Sahara winds and militant protests in Ghana and the Ivory Coast (sources for high-quality chocolate), led to a rogue's gallery of major corporations signing on for the stability of long-term relationships with competent producers. And now all of these companies trumpet some fair trade products.
The success story inspires many. Over a million producers and some 5 million people now benefit from a fair trade minimum price that protects them in case of market gluts, as well as a fair trade premium (in the range of 30 cents a tonne for cacao) that funds schools and health clinics. Once-powerless peasants now control some of their fate and food sovereignty through co-ops that share half the voting power in fair trade orgs.
But the large retailers selling corporate chocolate now account for the lion's share of fair trade sales, and these retailers want a reliable supply from a small number of specialized producers. They aren't organized to source from co-ops serving the world's small farmers, the very people fair trade was created to serve.
This is the dilemma the whole movement is trying to resolve. But watch for many follow-up dilemmas as pressure is placed on fair trade to water down standards.
While Fairtrade Canada stays loyal to small producers, ethical consuming here is disappointingly weak. Sure, Canadian fair trade sales grew 6 per cent to $330 million in 2009, but Tim Hortons, which sells no fair trade label coffee, is treated as a Canadian icon and pours eight out of every 10 cups of joe sold in Canada.
Nonetheless, Zelmer remains optimistic and points to Vancouver's and University of British Columbia's recent moves to become fair trade. An old instinct for collective action and enabling by public institutions might yet define future options for ethical purchasing.
CHOOSING TO BUY FAIR
Here are the products available bearing the FairTrade Canada label:
Cocoa • Coffee • Cotton • Flowers • Bananas • Gold • Rice • Spices and herbs • Shea butter • Olive oil • Sports balls • Sugar Tea • Imported wine