End of A Journey: Wrapped, but not Labelled

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I am back in Madison now hunched over my computer and almost recovered from what was almost certainly a nasty little amoeba. Looking around the office it is almost as if I had never leftРeverything sits exactly where I left it some two weeks ago. Readjusting has been hard. It is always a little difficult, but this one has been a different beast. Not only have I been physically sick, the temperature has dropped to a balmy one degree fahrenheit today which seems especially bitter after being in the warmth of coffee country for so long. Adding to the disorientation of returning and getting back to the day-to-day is the information that I am carrying around. How can I communicate it to you all in a way that is true, positive, hopeful, and helpful?

I’ll give it a whirl.

About a year ago I wrote a blog post entitled “Fair Trade is Dead”. I thought it was a pretty provocative title (although unbeknownst to me at least two other bloggers had already beat me to it) and I got a fair amount of feedback from the article. A year later I have not seen anything to change my mind about that statement. As a matter of fact, I would go even further to say that “fair trade” was never alive to begin with. It was a phrase a lot of us used to frame something that was– as Jonathan Rosenthal has called it– “slightly less unfair trade”. But even this just scratches the surface of what “fair trade” is, is not, never was, and now needs to be.

A lot of us who “do” what we have collectively identified as fair trade have been struggling mightily to prevent the term from being co-opted and carried off by the forces of big business, their friends, and their apologists. We have just not been able to stomach the idea that this moniker– one that so many have poured years of sweat equity into– can simply be taken away by folks in a real hurry to sell it to the lowest bidder. Even though many of these good people know that their time is better spent building their own visions, they find that they cannot quite stop fighting for the identity of “fair trade”.

The organizations in question– best exemplified by Fairtrade USA– are trying to capture and further commodify the idea into a simple label. They are experts at avoiding the above conversation, painting their detractors as zealots, and using the opposition’s own points against them with louder voices, more money, and better media contacts in a way that would even make George W.’s press folks blush with humility. They see that it has cracked wide open and there are a lot of dollars to be had in capturing the identity of “fair trade” and associating it with their own programs. They want to own the concept and they are willing to play hard ball to make sure that they control the conversation.

The casual “consumer” is eventually either confused or turned off by the labels, the argument, and the frankly dumbed-down claim that by buying a product with a snappy label on it one can “pull a farmer out of poverty”. This oversimplified daydream may work for a while, but the info is now too easily available and the overall skepticism too rampant for the average “fair trade” consumer to believe in it for long. They eventually and rightly sense that something is not quite right here.

But you know this story by now.

So let’s call it what it is: Fair trade has never been “fair”. Ask a farmer– any farmer– who has been involved in “fair trade”. He or she is almost certainly still living in poverty and most likely still caught in a market that he or she has little control over using personal labor and arable land to grow a fragile crop that his or her family cannot eat and dependent on nameless buyers thousands of miles away. So the dirty little secret is out: you will not change the world solely by buying a bag of coffee.

Alright, that hurt a little. But now that it is out of the way, we can get to the good parts– the pieces we can use to build this thing that we are all hoping for and working for in one way or another. What I am about to write comes straight from the farmers who we work with and who we visited with on our recent journey. I hope I can do our conversations justice.

1) We need to build a movement, not a brand, because trade is only capable of doing so much. There is a stark imbalance of resources in this world. Trade– if it is done responsibly– can help with that, but it cannot be our only response. We need to connect with movements for local, regional, national, and international social and economic justice. There are all sorts of opportunities in any area to do this. Plug in!

2) We need to create relationships with those who make or grow the things that we depend on. When we know where our things come from and who is responsible for producing them we begin to honestly care how those people are living. When we have relationships we are willing to put ourselves out there and do a little bit more to make sure communities are cared for. This can be done by visiting your local farmer’s market, visiting local companies who are doing cool things, or even joining a “delegation” to meet the people that grow your coffee. Connect!

3) Labels are, by their very definition, severely truth-impaired. As humans we create labels to better understand complexities. In order to do that we have to ignore or downplay differences in reality. As we add more and more to the oversimplified model (like a “fair trade label”) we are led to, over time, believe in structures that are not representative of reality. A “fair trade label” on a bag of Starbucks coffee does not mean what we are led to believe. Go beyond labels and ask for real info– transparency. If a company you buy from will not show you where the money goes, ask them why not.

4) Don’t believe the hype. Not long ago, Paul Rice of FTUSA sat in a room with a few of us in Madison and told us– I paraphrase– that “consumers” have a four-second attention span when shopping. FTUSA’s entire marketing and communication strategy is based on this “fact” and their label has been developed to work within those parameters. FTUSA’s brand of “fair trade” depends on this theory and the assumption that we are all too distracted to see that they have sold us all out to some of the very corporations that have caused the problems “fair trade” is supposed to address. My response is that every “consumer” is first a human being and that we should all be a bit insulted that people like Rice feel that four seconds is all that we are capable of when choosing what we support in the market place. We are people– not robotic economic objects– and we are capable of much more. Let’s show that this is true.

Traveling to Chiapas, Mexico for the first time changed my life forever and sixteen years later returning has the same dramatic effect on me. When I am in coffee country all of my ideas of who I am and who “they” are fall away and I realize that we are all exactly the same. We all love our families, want to be happy and relatively comfortable, and want to avoid pain and suffering as much as possible. We are all connected in a very real way– my daily habits and actions have a real affect on people thousands of miles away. And with increasing availability of the internets and whatnots, we can actually see each other and communicate with one another in real time. Now is the time to tear down these imaginary walls that hide some and protect others.

I want to end this journey with a challenge–Let’s trash the “fair trade” label. Not this certifier’s or the other’s, but the whole thing. The hell with it. “Fair trade” was a good place to start, but contrary to popular thought, we are much more than consumers and we can do better than a dumbed down catch phrase that never was quite accurate. We are human beings and we are at our best when we work together and solve problems. And we have some serious solving to do.

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