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Roberta Louis: What are some of the basic principles of fair trade, particularly as they apply to food and farming?
Dana Geffner: Before I talk about the specifics, I would like to make sure we are all on the same page. Fair trade is not a brand; it is a global solidarity movement and a political movement. It’s a market-based initiative for certification. Fair trade is also a set of government-regulated standards in parts of the European Union – but not here in the United States.
The movement came out of a resistance to the negative impacts of globalization, which has pitted small-scale farmers against large corporate farms. Our trade agreements were written for rich countries and multinational corporations, making it extremely difficult for small-scale producers to compete within the current economic system.
Originally, the fair trade movement was created by and for small marginalized communities in the Global South with solidarity and empowerment at its core. The focus was on small-scale farmers and artisanal handicraft producers who were organizing so that they could more easily access funding, take advantage of economies of scale, and compete in the global market. So democratic organizing is a key principle of fair trade.
Another critical aspect is creating long-term, direct trading relationships between buyers and producers. By shortening supply chains, removing intermediaries, and facilitating more value-added activities, a larger percentage of a product’s value can be captured by the producer community. These phenomena have a multiplier effect, spurring the development of local entrepreneurship and new services for local communities.
The payment of fair prices is another basic principle. A lot of people say that price is the key to fair trade, but – although promptly paying farmers and workers fair prices is certainly a major component – there are also many other aspects to building a more fair trading system. These include creating opportunities for economically and socially marginalized producers, respecting indigenous practices and cultures, allowing producers to collectively bargain with buyers, ensuring good working conditions, and making sure there is no child labor or forced labor of any kind.
Gender equity is important as well. While on a trip to India a couple of years ago, I visited a women’s co-op that is part of Fair Trade Alliance Kerala, a farming collective that organizes a seed festival every year, where the farmers sell seeds that they have saved from their crops. These women had taken over the farming responsibilities on their small plots of land from their husbands. It was really inspiring to sit in a circle with them and listen to how, initially, their husbands didn’t want them to farm; they didn’t believe the women could do it better than them. When the women started doing it, however, they got better results and higher yields than the men. Then the women wanted to take over the bookkeeping, and their husbands were skeptical. But the women were able to do it, and they are doing it much better than the men did and are extremely successful. So the women have been taking on these different roles, and it’s completely changing the gender dynamics in their communities. Men are now handling household chores – even sweeping – and that’s a big deal in some communities in India.
Another key principle is respect for the environment. A huge portion, although not all, of fair trade crops are organic. Small-scale farmers globally are stewards of the land and tend to use traditional techniques that have been passed down forever. A lot of reports show that small-scale farmers generally do not use the heavy chemicals that the big, industrial farms are using. They also grow various crops interspersed, which preserves biodiversity and benefits the environment. Fair trade certifications have standards that limit or completely restrict the use of chemicals.
Capacity building, education and skill building, and investing in community development projects are also important elements of fair trade. A corporation may publicize the fact that they have funded the building of a school or a well in a specific community, but that project could have nothing to do with the needs of the community and its members. Community development projects should be decided by members in the communities rather than by an executive who lives far away and wants their corporate social responsibility impact report to have good PR capability.
Roberta: Would you tell us a bit about how you first became involved in the fair trade movement over 20 years ago?
Dana: Well, my passion was always traveling. I was a student of the world, I always say. Currently, I’m finishing up my master’s in public affairs at UC Berkeley, but I started by traveling throughout Latin America and visiting wonderful communities that were making beautiful handicrafts. In the process, I was learning about the international policies that were deeply impacting all these communities that I was falling in love with.
I learned about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton. Prior to its signing, the Zapatistas in Southern Mexico had picked up arms for 12 bloody days because they said that the pact would be death to indigenous communities in Mexico. Now we know that over two million farmers lost their land in Mexico as a direct result of NAFTA.
While traveling through Nicaragua, I learned about the Sandinista revolution. In the 1980s, the United States had backed the Contras to oust the Sandinistas, the people’s democratically elected party. In fear of retaliation, farmers called on people from the Global North to harvest their cotton and coffee alongside them. That was the first time I learned about working in solidarity – and it inspired me.
I was in my late twenties, and I was just learning about all these international policies – and I was upset. I grew up middle-class in Los Angeles, California, and I was finding out that I was comfortable while all these people were not. But what was more upsetting was that I was comfortable because other people were not. I just couldn’t live with that.
When I came back home, I felt that I needed to educate people about these international policies. So I started having gatherings in people’s homes. I would bring beautiful handicrafts from these wonderful cooperatives and talk about the people who made them with the main focus being on policies that were impacting them. After doing that for eight years, I began working for Global Exchange, a human rights organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. They had five fair trade retail stores, and so I helped them start their wholesale division. I was working with over 30 cooperatives around the world, designing products and placing them in their stores and other stores around the country. However, my true passion was education. I thought the only way our unequal economic system would change was by people knowing about policies that impacted others.
Roberta: How did that lead to the founding of Fair World Project?
Dana: As I was traveling and visiting these communities, I was finding that all of these women who were making handicrafts and forming co-ops also owned their own pieces of land. At that point, I was starting to dig into the issues around corporate control over our food systems and about climate change. I was hearing the same thing everywhere I visited, whether it was Ghana, Nicaragua, or India. The farmers didn’t know when the rains would come, and then it would rain unusually hard. It was impossible for them to continue farming the way that they traditionally had.
I was meeting various people who were really interested in these subjects, and in 2009 a group of us started to discuss the need for an advocacy organization that would educate people about the problems with industrial agriculture, corporate control, and policies that were creating an unjust food system. We wanted to highlight the value of small-scale farmers and the authentic relationships that were being built between ethical traders in the Global North and organized farmers in the Global South. We also wanted to talk about the importance of organizing and social movements in fighting for policy changes that could create a more just economy.
At the time, there was one fair trade certification in the United States, and it was dictating the discussion around what fair trade meant. It was not addressing all the deep structural issues in our system. Instead, it was allowing Starbucks to have a certification label on a very minimal percentage of their coffee bags and, in effect, say, “If you buy this cup of coffee, you’re going to save the world,” which we know is not the case – we can’t simply buy our way out of systemic global injustice.
So, in 2010, we founded Fair World Project with the goal to educate people about these issues that have really rigged the system against us. We started a magazine called For a Better World and printed 50,000 copies. Immediately, we needed to reprint another 150,000 because retailers around the country wanted to get them into the hands of their customers. It was just the kind of information that was needed. We published that magazine twice a year for 10 years.
At the same time, we’ve been helping consumers prioritize ethical, mission-driven companies and acting as a watchdog of fair trade and fair labor certifications. We have produced guides and reports; traveled, not only in this country but globally, doing a lot of presentations; and worked to educate retail buyers to try to get more market share for dedicated fair trade brands. Meanwhile, things have gotten more and more complicated within the fair trade certification world, with a plethora of labels arising.
This last year, we transitioned the magazine into a podcast called For a Better World, which has been extremely popular. This is now our main initiative, and we’re very excited about it.
Roberta: Would you tell us more about the For a Better World podcast, as well as the other projects you are currently working on?
Dana: The podcast focuses on telling stories from on the ground that reveal the problems within our food system and what corporations are doing to harm people and the environment. We’re also presenting an alternative to that, showing what farmers and workers are doing to empower themselves and their communities to create a change in our food system. People can download and listen to For a Better World anywhere they get their podcasts.
In our first season, called “Nestlé’s KitKat Unwrapped,” we’re unraveling the issues around the KitKat bar and digging deeply into its main ingredients: cocoa, sugar, and palm oil. We’re also unpacking corporate control over our food systems and really over our entire political system. We believe that in order to create real change that will shift the balance of power in our global food and trade systems, people need to be educated about what is actually happening.
One of the things that fair trade is supposed to be about is direct relationships. The conventional corporate business model involves having long supply chains with little to no transparency, and the corporate leaders take no part in what is happening on the ground. The system is created to have no faces, no individuals on one end of the supply chain. Fair trade, on the other hand, is about relationship building; it is about working in solidarity for a better world, so that all prosper. It is about sitting down, talking, connecting, finding out what is happening, and making decisions together so that everyone has a better life, not just the one percent.
I encourage everyone to listen to “Nestlé’s KitKat Unwrapped,” because it breaks down these differences in detail. For all sectors of our economy, we know that corporations have a mandate to prioritize shareholder profits and unfettered growth, and they don’t care who gets in the way. They don’t care that another group of young children is going to grow up in slavery in Ivory Coast picking cocoa beans or that our planet is going to be uninhabitable due to climate change, because profit is what drives them.
All the big chocolate companies – including Nestlé, Cargill, and Hershey – signed a voluntary agreement in 2001 to eradicate the use of forced child labor in cocoa production, which they have not done, and in fact they keep extending the deadline. Most recent reports have shown an increase in child labor, and the work is becoming more dangerous. These corporations are wanting productivity to increase, so more pesticides are being used in the fields where the children are working. Right now, there is a case at the US Supreme Court against Cargill and Nestlé. It was brought by six plaintiffs who claim to have been forced into slavery when they were children, taken from Mali to Ivory Coast to work on farms that Nestlé and Cargill profited massively from. Nestlé and Cargill are saying that the court cannot uphold this case because it would put them at a competitive disadvantage. That’s their argument. They’re not claiming that there’s no child slavery.
Fair World Project currently has a campaign to end child labor in cocoa. We’re calling on the big cocoa companies to meet five demands. One is to provide living incomes to farmers, and another is to do what they have said they would do for over 20 years – to make sure there’s no child slavery. People can find more information about that on our website, fairworldproject.org, or you can go directly to the campaign and sign on: https://bit.ly/3gX0w15.
We are also watching closely what advocacy groups are working on in the EU right now regarding mandatory human rights due diligence in corporate supply chains. We believe this is the next step for the United States to hold these corporations accountable. This means corporations will need to be proactive in managing potential and actual negative human rights impacts that they are involved with, and they will need to take steps to remedy them or be held financially liable in the courts.
We have a lot of other things going on right now. For one, we’re constantly looking at certifications. The Regenerative Organic Certification is something I’m spending a lot of time working on, since I’m on the Regenerative Organic Alliance board.
Roberta: What is regenerative agriculture and how does the Regenerative Organic Certification differ from other fair trade certifications?
Dana: The term regenerative agriculture is actually being diluted right now. People who use it aren’t always referring to organic agriculture. When I talk about regenerative agriculture, I mean regenerative organic agriculture. It’s a holistic approach to agriculture that emphasizes the restoration of soil health. It builds upon the experiences of the organic movements that preceded it, and its practices are drawn from the traditional knowledge of small-scale farmers. Some of these practices include conservation tillage, mulching, composting, cover cropping, and crop rotation, as well as restorative livestock integration.
So when we talk about Regenerative Organic Certification, we’re using organic certification as a baseline. We have a holistic approach with three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and fairness to farmers and workers. Regenerative Organic Certification takes all the different fair trade certifications that are out there – it allows the use of any of them – and strengthens the weaker fair trade certifications by adding additional standards onto them.
The benefits of regenerative organic farming are multifold. It sequesters carbon, increasing resiliency in the face of drought or extreme climate events. It improves productivity. While specific approaches may vary in different agricultural scenarios – for example, row crops, agroforestry, or livestock farming – regenerative organic is low-tech, often inexpensive, and relatively easy to implement. It prioritizes the utilization of on-farm fertility sources and reduces the need to use fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel. The traditional techniques of regenerative organic farming reduce costs for farmers and build up the soil as well as farm resiliency.
Roberta: Would you talk about the intersection between indigenous food sovereignty and fair trade?
Dana: Fair trade is about respecting culture, and regenerative farming includes traditional growing techniques that have been handed down by indigenous peoples from generation to generation. We don’t need to teach these farmers anything. They know what they’re doing.
On the surface, it might seem that growing some of the key fair trade crops, such as coffee and cocoa, for export could undermine the food sovereignty of indigenous communities. But if the farmers are engaging in fair trade relationships, they’re intercropping products for export with the local food that they use in their communities. Sometimes, they sell their crops at their local market or trade with other community members. Fair trade is often considered to be about exporting crops, but it really is a holistic approach to food sovereignty and community building.
For example, quinoa is a staple food for indigenous peoples in Bolivia and Peru. When it became extremely popular in the United States and Europe, big corporations started extracting all the quinoa out of indigenous communities, so people were being left with nothing and being paid nothing. But fair trade organizations that are working with the communities are making sure that there’s enough quinoa left and that it’s not all being exported.
I know that has been very important for the fair trade company Alter Eco. They were worried about the communities not having enough quinoa, and they have been ensuring that enough is being retained. They’re also focusing on agroforestry in Peru, where they source cacao. In fact, Alter Eco just launched a nonprofit leg of their organization to work on agroforestry within their supply chains. In partnership with PUR Projet (purprojet.com), they have been working with a farming cooperative at the edge of the Peruvian Amazon to plant trees within the cacao fields and help regenerate the ecosystem.
There are many farmers’ co-ops that use the profits from their fair trade sales to invest in community food projects and support traditional farming. Some of these, such as Fair Trade Alliance Kerala, with their seed festival, organize agroecological fairs that benefit their communities. In Episode Two of For a Better World, one of the guests – from the Manduvira Cooperative in Paraguay – talks about the agroforestry fairs organized by farmers there.
Of course, fair trade practices benefit indigenous artisans as well as farmers. In fact, one of my starting points in the fair trade movement was learning about the backstrap loom in Guatemala and Southern Mexico. This is an old traditional weaving technique where a woman sits on her knees on the ground with the loom connected to her by a piece of material. The women make beautiful huipiles (traditional blouses or tunics) on their backstrap looms. Each community has their own color and their own design, and they all mean something. This is a traditional technique that has actually been dying out. For six years, I was on the board of a foundation called Fundación Tradiciones Mayas (Maya Traditions, in English), and one of its goals is to keep backstrap looming alive. Working with indigenous artisan cooperatives to help them sell their weavings really was the start of my fair trade tenure.
Roberta: What are some of the issues surrounding fair trade certification, and what labels should consumers look for in the marketplace?
Dana: A strong certification standard is one that is created and governed by the rights holders. This needs to go beyond tokenism. Certifications that formally include farmers, workers, and artisans and give them real decision-making power – in the form of votes and vetoes to producers – are the ones that we should be looking for.
I tend to stay away from telling people what labels to look for in the marketplace. Consumers should not just be looking for a label when they are buying a product. If there’s a brand that they really love, they need to dig a little bit deeper and learn more about it, because not all certifications are created equal. The ones that are most popular in the marketplace tend to be top-down and corporate driven, and do not have farmers and workers at the decision-making table.
How the certifying organization directs and trains their auditors—the people who conduct their site audits on the ground – is also important. Often those auditors do not have enough training and/or experience within the cultural setting. Someone told me a story about how, in the middle of Africa, an auditor went in and said, “You don’t have fire extinguishers at your facility.” Of course, it’s purely a Western construct that people need something that has been manufactured in order to put out a fire. The local people know how to put out fires in their own way. If you don’t have auditors that are culturally sensitive and knowledgeable, there can be many problems.
We had issues in Honduras where auditors undermined workers who were trying to organize on a melon farm. There had been 10 years of well-documented human rights violations at that farm, so the workers were trying to unionize. Auditors went in, and they didn’t even understand what collective bargaining meant. They completely undermined the process and certified the farm, despite the human rights violations.
These are just a few examples of the problems that occur when the rights holders are not at the decision-making table. Having them give input on the standards is not enough – they need to have real decision-making authority.
Roberta: How would people go about researching the various fair trade certifications, if they wanted to learn more about them?
Dana: We provide a lot of information about the different certifications on our website, fairworldproject.org. We have simple-to-use reference guides for consumers, as well as long reports geared more for retailers who want to dig deeper into the supply chain.
But rather than suggesting that people search for specific certifications, I want them to be looking into the different brands: Who owns the brand? Who’s their parent company if there is one? Are they independently owned? What’s their business structure? Are they small family owned? Are they a worker-owned co-op? Do they have salary caps for their corporate leaders and executive teams? I think that those are important things to look at—and the way they talk about their partners on the ground is key.
The tough part for consumers is that corporations with corporate social responsibility programs – the Nestlés and Starbucks of the world – can make themselves sound really good. This is why we can’t depend on conscious consumerism to fix the deep injustices in our society. But what gives me hope is that people are starting to wake up and realize what corporations are doing. They are becoming aware of the issues surrounding corporate supply chains. So all these top-down certifications that are out there in the marketplace are not going to survive, because people are beginning to realize that farmworkers and farmers need to be at the decision-making table.
Roberta: What are the major impediments to expanding the fair trade movement, and has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted progress?
Dana: I think the major impediment is that corporations’ first priority is to generate profit. They have an incredible amount of power and are crafting laws to benefit their bottom line. So, as long as we do not have laws to regulate corporations, expanding a system that puts people and the environment first will never happen. As long as corporations have more power than farmers, retailers, and consumers, we will always have an unjust system. Right now, fair trade brands that are truly working in partnership with communities on the ground have to compete in the market against conventional brands. We need to shift the power dynamic by pushing for laws that protect workers, that fight for organizing efforts and living incomes.
Obviously, COVID-19 has greatly impacted communities globally. I have felt so emotional hearing stories about communities that are working together to help and feed each another. The pandemic has really highlighted our unjust economic system—not just the inequities in our food and farming systems, but the injustices happening everywhere, the inequality that has been growing at record rates not seen since the Gilded Age.
I also think we are having different conversations now than we did prior to the start of the pandemic. I feel more optimistic about what we can accomplish together. For instance, the Senate is going to be voting on the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, the most significant policy to expand organizing rights for workers we’ve seen in 40 years. We are talking more about racial injustices than ever before. We are discussing national health care for everyone, and more people are in support of raising the minimum wage. So while this pandemic has been just horrific for so many people, we may have a way forward to creating something better for our children.
Roberta: How can consumers best support the fair trade movement?
Dana: Consumers can do many things to support the fair trade movement. It goes beyond just purchasing something on a supermarket shelf, because we can’t buy our way out of inequality. People can help by joining social movements, advocating for fair policies with their local officials, and voting for politicians who will hold corporations accountable and create policy that puts people and the planet first.
This all takes education, though. Listening to our podcast, For a Better World, and learning more about the plight of farmers and workers everywhere are good beginning steps. Then people can share this information with their friends and family to get them knowledgeable. Everyone needs to be aware of what trade policies mean and how they impact people on the ground.
There is a huge push for mandatory human rights due diligence in corporate supply chains in Europe, and many of us are talking about advocating for that here in the United States. We all need to fight for fair policies and corporate accountability. We need to fight for living wages—and to increase our minimum wage nationally. We need to participate in our democracy if we want it to be a democracy.
For consumers to support the fair trade movement, they need to care about all of these issues. It’s not just a matter of looking at a label and hoping that someone had safe working conditions. It’s so much more.
Roberta: Would you tell us about the Grow Ahead crowdfunding platform?
Dana: Fair World Project helped to kickstart Grow Ahead, which is a crowdfunding platform that raises money for farmer-led agroforestry projects. It’s bringing together contributions from individuals, businesses, organizations, and even grants to fund community-led projects that address the local challenges of climate change.
Small-scale farmers already know the climate solutions, but they’re very under-resourced. Their land is being taken away from them, and they have limited capital to invest in implementation of any solutions. What Grow Ahead does is work with frontline communities that are implementing reforestation projects run by small-scale farmer organizations. People can learn more at their website, growahead.org.
Roberta: Can you share with us some success stories, both for Fair World Project and the fair trade movement in general?
Dana: I think that it’s hard for us to quantify our success sometimes because what we are doing is pushing the dialogue in a certain direction. I believe that we have changed the dialogue around what fair trade should be, how we should be talking about it as a holistic approach, how it’s a social justice movement. It’s not just about buying a cup of coffee. So I feel like we’ve taken part in moving the needle on the dialogue about corporate control.
But as for specific successes: Earlier, I mentioned the labor rights violations that had been going on for 10 years at a melon farm in Honduras owned by Fyffes, which is the biggest produce company in the world. A fair trade certifier went in and certified them even though they had been told about these labor rights violations.
We were asked by the farm workers in Honduras to participate in this, and we were able to get the certifier to decertify that farm. Now, the farm workers are in negotiation because of that decertification. That was a success, although we’re still working on it. We also got Costco to agree not to buy melons from that farm, and that’s a success as well.
When it comes to the fair trade movement in general, there are lots of successes that I can point to. I spoke earlier about Fair Trade Alliance Kerala in India, and how the women fought for their role in the family and changed the gender dynamics in their community.
I have also seen communities that are working with brands such as Dr. Bronner’s. This company is doing some wonderful things with farming communities. I have visited most of their projects on the ground, and what they’re doing is quite remarkable. They’re working with organized small-scale farmers and then building processing facilities in their communities. In Ghana, for example, they have a palm oil facility that’s providing well-paying jobs to the local communities. In Sri Lanka, they are working with coconut farmers and have a coconut-processing facility.
Alaffia is a great body care brand in Togo that is doing the same thing as Dr. Bronner’s. They are working with shea nut communities. Shea nuts are a wild-harvested crop, and the company works with entire communities of shea nut pickers and has built its own facilities to process the shea. I have been to Togo several times, and on the last day of one of my trips, over 4,000 people showed up and walked in a procession to see us off. We were with the founder of the company, Olowo-n’djo Tchala, and everybody wanted to come out and say goodbye to this man whose work is benefitting the entire country.
I have also visited apparel companies whose supply chains start with small-scale cotton farmers. Maggie’s Organics is a great brand that has gone through all of their supply chains to ensure fair working conditions and business practices, which is extremely difficult and complex in the apparel industry.
Over the years, I have visited many fair trade projects throughout the world and have found that organized farmers in long-term partnerships with committed buyers not only fare the best, but are more likely to implement regenerative organic practices. These are the most exciting projects for me, and they give me hope for the future.
Photographs courtesy of Dana Geffner.
Dana Geffner is co-founder and executive director of Fair World Project (FWP), an NGO based in the United States that advocates fair trade for organized small-scale farmers and labor justice for workers globally. She is the host of For a Better World, a podcast by FWP about fair trade and the farmer- and worker-led movements that are fighting for equitable food and farming systems. She serves on several boards, including the Regenerative Organic Alliance and Grow Ahead. Dana is currently finishing up her master’s in public affairs at the University of California, Berkeley and Graduate Certificate in Food Systems from the Berkeley Food Institute. Her goal is to stop corporate extractive growth that is driving inequality and to participate in building a just economy for everyone. For more information, visit www.fairworldproject.org.
Roberta Louis is managing editor of the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing and founder of Shaman’s Drum Foundation.
Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Spring 2021 | Volume 45, Number 1
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