TOWARD THE RE-INVENTION OF “FAIR TRADE” by René Mendoza Vidaurre

The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato

With an open treasure, even the most righteous sins. Saying.

The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.

Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, the institutional structure of the power relationships under the market rule of elites is like the sirens of the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, of turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers[1]. How can FT tie itself up to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question, we take as given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are still more successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its regression, and on that basis we suggest that FT re-invent itself. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT[2].

It should be noted here that this analysis does not presume that all parties in the FT framework will view its conclusions with favor or agreement; indeed, some of the actors within the FT arena are very well-served by the current status of the FT mechanisms. Nor does the author attempt to provide a blueprint for all of the actions necessary to cultivate change. The intention herein is to describe the realities of the FT network as it most often operates, and to draw attention to the ways it could be returned to its original objectives and principles.

[1] Even though strictly speaking currently FT is the organization known as FLO International (Fairtrade Labelling Organization International) and FT-USA (FT-United States), we call “the FT network” the series of cooperatives, certifiers, social banks and buyers who operate under the FT seal.

[2] We have followed the topic of fair trade in coffee since 1996 (See: Mendoza 1996, 2003, 2012a and 2012b; Mendoza & Bastiaensen, 2002).

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