Webinar on the Difficult Questions in the Fair Trade Community

Last night I attended, “Answering Difficult Questions in your Community” a webinar, moderated by Courtney Lang of Fair Trade USA, and lead by Billy Linstead Goldsmith of Fair Trade Towns, Ryan McDonnell of the Boston Faith & Justice Network, and Joan Harper of Fair Trade Los Angeles. The full webinar will be made available here for anyone who wishes to listen to it. Much of the webinar reinforced what I, and other TrailBlazers, understood from previous discussions with Fair Trade USA. Billy discussed Fair Trade USA’s choice to leave FLO (Fair Trade Labeling Organizations) and its Fair Trade for All pilot program; however, I was also given some insight into how Fair Trade Boston and Los Angeles have responded to the recent controversy with Fair Trade and their own struggles.

Billy started off the webinar by discussing Fair Trade USA, FLO, and the issues surrounding Fair Trade for All and the Coffee Innovation project. Billy explained that Fair Trade USA and FLO agree on the majority of their goals and methods for supporting Fair Trade, but there are some key differences. Fair Trade USA was paying FLO a substantial amount of money which then went into raising awareness in Europe and not the United States. Fair Trade USA left, in part, because they felt that they could use that money to promote awareness in American consumers. Additionally, Fair Trade USA seeks to expand Fair Trade to farmworkers working on bigger farms and who are unable to join cooperatives (see my other blog post).

Billy also discussed the recent stakeholder meeting, where some organizations met to discuss these new initiatives and what it could mean for small farmers (see this an article from FTRN on their reaction). Billy said that Fair Trade Towns wants to open the way for more discussion and invite debate, but in a way that is constructive and will not turn consumers off from the idea of Fair Trade. He also stated that for any global social movement, there have to be different ideas and approaches to solving a problem. Fair Trade USA wants to be transparent and open about what it is doing, and hopes to continue discussions.

Both Joan and Ryan then went on to discuss their organizations and what has been done in the face of Fair Trade USA’s controversy.

Joan first talked about Fair Trade LA and how it had some concerns over Fair Trade USA’s decision to leave FLO. Fair Trade USA responded to these concerns by offering to come and talk to Fair Trade LA. The two groups had a long, intense discussion, as not everyone on Fair Trade LA is in agreement with Fair Trade USA’s actions.  An agreement wasn’t reached, but that, according to Joan, wasn’t necessarily expected from the meeting. However, Fair Trade USA did agree and admit that it hadn’t communicated well and hadn’t been transparent, but were moving to remedy that.

The point that I believe Joan was making, was that while discussions may not right away lead to a compromise, it at least gets the ball rolling. She gave an example, where she had noticed a disillusionment in some people new to the movement, taken aback by the negativity out there. These discussions, even if only a little bit of headway is made, keep the brunt of the negativity from turning consumers off from Fair Trade. “Don’t sugar coat” Fair Trade, but keep the consumers above the fray.

Ryan then picked up the conversation to discuss Fair Trade Boston and its reactions. Like Fair Trade LA, Fair Trade Boston had many diverse opinions about Fair Trade and Fair Trade USA. Their goal had always been to support the “global meets local” aspect of Fair Trade, and so the group decided it would be best to remain out of some of the big national discussions and focus on its local efforts. However, the group did develop an internal policy document to reach some agreement over the controversy regarding Fair Trade USA (mostly involving issues of product labeling, such as Fair Trade Ingredients) to move forward. The document was helpful as it allowed Fair Trade Boston to voice what it liked and disliked about the Fair Trade movement, broadened their perspective, and established a middle ground on the issue.

Ryan then went on to discuss a point that Billy had touched on earlier, that many perspectives on social issues can be beneficial. Ryan elaborated that through these differing perspectives, a middle ground can be found.

Like many of the other discussions we have blogged about, the main message of this webinar was to continue to talk and ask questions about Fair Trade, and to agree to disagree. While a resolution may not be immediate, communication is still important, and with effort, some ground can be established.

Contributed by Sarah DeMartino, Fair Trade Intern