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In a move that has sent shockwaves of disbelief throughout the "fair trade" industry worldwide, Fair Trade USA (until recently TransFair USA), is separating from FLO (Fairtrade Licensing Organization) and the Fairtrade International movement.

The primary reason (the actual decision-making process was done behind closed doors and FTUSA does not feel "comfortable" releasing the names of those involved in the process: So much for transparency!) for the schism appears to be a disagreement over the inclusion of hired labor organizations (i.e., estates and individual farms) in the coffee industry into the fair trade souk.

At the moment, all of the producer entities who have Fairtrade certification - in coffee - are SPOs (small producer organizations). There are other products that already allow estates that use hired labor to "enjoy the benefits" of Fairtrade certification - bananas is one (cocoa is not, for now, included in FTUSA's push to embrace hired labor organizations). FLO/FI does not want to extend certification to hired labor organizations in coffee; FTUSA does. FTUSA's rubric for their new movement is "Fair Trade for All."

Who could possibly object to "Fair Trade for All?" But, of course, there are those who do. [My opinion is that the fairtrade business model is fundamentally flawed and there are better ways to achieve address systemic issues than the premium "aid" model, which, in practice, acts to extend Western economic imperialism.] There are arguments on both sides ... that are convincing to the supporters of their respective positions. In the end, no-one knows what the schism will mean in practice, either for their respective movements for consumers, or producers. But I have a sinking feeling that I know who will lose out: the very people whom "Fair" trade is supposed to help.

I have one more prediction - and I would like to hear the thoughts of members of TheChocolateLife community about the split.

My sense is that this can only be confusing to consumers who will now have to understand and recognize the differences between FTUSA certification and FLO certification. FTUSA has to come up with an entirely new logo and convince their current sub-licensees to switch to the new system. Products with the FLO symbol will continue to be imported into the US and there is every likelihood that an "official" FLO organization will arise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of this (unfortunate but ultimately fated) implosion.

Perhaps most unfortunately is that monies that should be going to help people who need the help (growers and producers) will now be going to designers, printers, and PR and marketing firms to educate the buying public on the need for the change, to (try) to reduce the confusion in the marketplace, and to convince people that the new logo can be trusted.

Once again I ask: "How is this 'fair?'" In the end, the millions and millions of dollars that will be spent on this will be ill-spent; a testament to massive organizational hubris and naught else. Who will benefit most in the end? FTUSA and ad agency/PR executives who sit in air-conditioned offices and drive around the San Francisco Bay area in "PC/environmentally friendly" cars pulling down hefty six-figure salaries.

Not subsistence farmers who do not (and cannot) earn a living from the fruits of their labor.

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And this from Bloomberg news today: Fair Trade Proving Anything But to Farmers With $6 Billion Sales at Stake.

And if that weren't enough, FLO CEO Rob Cameron has resigned.


I was substituting in a high school in NYC today and one of the classes was working on this exact issue.  Each student was looking at FTUSA, FLO and other related issues.  Each student had a different commodity and I didn't realize that there is fair trade rice and other products not produced for export on a small scale.  I was discussing the SPO oranizations I am familiar with as at applies to coffee and cacao without even knowing it.   I will share this information with the teacher.  Thank you Clay.

Hi Clay, 

You're right, it is a very sad story and this should have been avoided. I think it mainly has to do with too big ego's forgetting what it was all about. Fair Trade as a movement was started to offer small scale farmers access to the international markets in order to be able to export their produce to the market, avoiding intermediation and thus obtaining a better price. A lot has changed and power-play came into it. Worker rights are in a way protected by law in many countries, espcially on those estates that are interested in the Fair Trade logo, so what is the benefit? 

Would be interesting to see how this would work out for cocoa estates...


Rodney Nikkels


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