Fair Trade: one of the links in the sustainable development chain?

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Today, two approaches can be seen in the fair trade movement: the “direct trading approach” represents players who specialize in fair trade (Magasins du Monde and their purchasing centers), while the “certification approach” includes fair trade labeling organizations (FLO International) and companies that import and distribute fair trade products and are part of or work within the “traditional” economic system. In the first approach, trade relations with producer organizations are mostly based on trust and personal relationships. In this area, organizations in the South (producers) as well as the North (distributors) are simply asked to complete self-evaluations. This model relies heavily on volunteer work and activism to function. Its value lies in its ability to set up product chains without necessarily having to take into account their trade volume. A wide variety of products, in food and non-food sectors, is offered to consumers. However, as we suggested, these trade opportunities are not very suitable for mass consumption.

Under the certification approach, however, the monitoring of production conditions and relations with importers stress rationality and objectivity. The reference systems are precise and established through contract. Local inspectors are sent into producer organizations to ensure that fair trade standards are being respected; they rely on a fairly detailed project specification system. In parallel, inspectors monitor importers’ bookkeeping concerning fair trade transactions. The approach is primarily a professional one. This sector offers the undeniable advantage of being able to standardize fair trade criteria and, consequently, to open this type of trade to non-activist companies and organizations that are, in principle, not concerned with alternative markets. But the players that defend this view of fair trade are often divided between their ideals, the moral and humane values they defend, and international market realities: the most solid and profitable producer organizations will more easily gain the fair trade market share than the others. It is less restrictive for conventional importers to make large volume purchases from more certain and reliable fair trade organizations rather than risk unplanned delivery delays or irregular product quality with less organized suppliers. In this context, fair trade will be mainly profitable to stable collective structures, to the detriment of weaker organizations.

While certification supporters appear as “reformers,” in the sense that they believe fair trade is likely to improve the current liberal economic system by using existing capitalist structures; those who defend direct trading see fair trade economies as completely alternative, having to call on similar organizations that are not involved in traditional trade. This dichotomy can also be seen in other sustainable development sectors, such as organic production and renewable energy, liable to clashes between proponents of system change from the outside or the inside.

The conflicts between the two viewpoints described above tend to be centered around the distribution of fair trade products. While certification proponents work toward distributing fair trade products in places where consumers of the North typically shop, such as mid-size and large retailers, direct trading proponents envision the sale of alternative products only in small retailers. Mass distribution is accused of having many negative effects: according to activists, due to its monopolistic nature and the pressure it puts on prices, it decreases product quality, eliminates jobs (concentration of producers, off-shoring), and damages the environment by intensifying production methods (Jacquiau, 2000).

Le commerce équitable : un des maillons du développement durable?”

Virginie Diaz PEDREGAL

Published in Développement Durable et Territoires magazine


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