For a while there, it looked like fair trade might join the casualty list of alternative social movements reduced to a market niche.
But the grassroots are back in full swing, thanks to “fair trade towns,” an idea that’s been sweeping through Europe since 2001 and just crossed the ocean to Canada in 2007, landing first in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and La Pêche, Quebec.
This new wave exemplifies the latest wrinkle in democracy. As governments drift into reduced relevance – too big to do the small things for individuals and community groups, too small to do the big things with giant multinationals – fair trader influence is growing.
From almost a standing start in the 1990s, the sector is now a billion-dollar business marketing some 2,000 products from 50 countries to 22 others, raising the living standards of some 5 million workers.
The new push began humbly enough in 2001 when Oxfam volunteers declared Garstang, Lancashire, in England, a fair trade town. As of last year, Britain had 309 such officially declared municiplities, including London, Aberdeen, Leeds, Bristol and Robin Hood’s Nottingham, and another 284 campaigning to join.
The European Union now helps campaigners along on the Continent, where Rome is the star sign-up and Dutch and Scandinavian cities are joining quickly.
To be accredited, a local government agrees to: pass a motion supporting fair trade; publicize it and seek opportunities to broaden the sector; serve fair trade coffee and tea at meetings and in offices; and form a monitoring committee to keep the campaign alive.
As well, in qualifying towns and cities, a reasonable number of retailers (one for every 10,000 citizens) and restaurants (one for every 20,000 residents) must offer fair trade products.
Note that the qualifications do not include major fair trade city purchasing policies. That’s being left for another day. The rather simple and welcoming short list of prerequisites – there’s not one major or polarizing expenditure here – expresses the spirit of “continuous improvement.”
As with Japanese manufacturing industries that pioneered it during the 1950s, continuous improvement discounts the value of master plans, blueprints and credentials and puts the emphasis on encouraging and empowering people on the front lines to implement real changes.
Well into its second year as a fair trade city, Malmö, a multicultural centre of 270,000 on the southern tip of Sweden, is a case study of what smooth-flowing cooperation among businesses, community groups and government agencies can accomplish in this participatory democracy project. From my experience visiting relatives in that country a few years back, I’ve concluded Swedes are the perfect people for such challenges, given that dialogue and practical projects seem second nature to them after 70 years of social democracy, entrepreneurial capitalism, extreme tolerance and strong family values.
The degree of cooperation in Malmö’s fair trade initiative illustrates Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s argument in World Class: Thriving Locally In The Global Economy that successful cities in the knowledge economy are those that can collaborate across social and other divides.
The project is managed by an association led by a church, the Red Cross and a number of major unions. (Now a city of information workers and creatives, Malmö was once Sweden’s biggest industrial city and the birthplace of Swedish socialism.)
A directory of fair trade businesses, funded by a city grant, trumpets the consumer’s “power to choose” but notes that so many fair trade goods are available in so many places that “making an ethical choice is no longer for do-gooders but fashionable and fun.”
The directory lists a wide variety of specialty restaurants, gift shops and ice cream, clothing, furniture and grocery stores, but notes that fair trade goods are available in most chains and discount stores as well as Pizza Hut and the Hilton.
The city’s website plays up offerings to tourists and features opportunities to “live ethically and ecologically in Malmö,” with a variety of eco-gourmet tours and green golf courses.
As a marketing trend, fair trade emphasizes the “decommodification” of shopping, the ethical scrutiny of purchasing decisions, and relationships with unseen but knowable producers. Crafts and foods are probably the strong suits of fair trade. (This angle doesn’t work in the steel or mining sector, because they’re less easily personalized.) Fair To The Last Drop, a recent study by FoodFirst, calls the new buying practice “solidarity consumerism.”
If the sector is to expand – keep in mind that it’s still marginal; there are no certified fair trade bananas yet in Toronto, for instance – it needs some official support.
That comes from governments creating a culture that makes wise choices easy and unwise ones less so. The campaign for fair trade cities is precisely about mobilizing that energy, thereby enabling a generous practice to become normal and pleasant.
Where just consuming rules
FAIR TRADE CITIES AND TOWNS
In Canada, only two: • Wolfville, Nova Scotia • La Pêche, Quebec
In the U.S., only two: • Brattleboro, Vermont • Media, Pennsylvania
Among the hundreds in Europe: • Paris • Rome • Sauda, Norway • Malmö, Sweden • Belfast • Edinburgh • Liverpool • Manchester • London, England, eight boroughs
FAIR TRADE PRODUCTS IN CANADA
Cocoa products (syrups, baked goods, frozen desserts, drinks), coffee, cotton, flowers, quinoa, rice, sugar, tea, spices, sports balls, wine, craft items
NUMBER OF STORES IN T.O. CARRYING FAIR TRADE GOODS: 67