In my perfect world, everybody plays fair. In the world I live in, that doesn’t happen so often. Nevertheless, we have committed ourselves to supporting fair trade in the products we purchase.
We had an option to purchase Fair Trade USA certified coconut oil, but we said no. Allow me to fill in the background, to make our decision clear.
We were purchasing a top quality plantation farmed, factory produced coconut oil from the Philippines. As part of our journey into verifying our supply, I took a trip to the Solomon Islands, and then to the Philippines, to see how our coconut oil was produced first hand. Just prior to leaving, I learned that our Philippine oil could be purchased as fair trade, an exciting development as far as I was concerned.
What I saw on my trip in the Solomon Islands confirmed that our purchase and promotion of our DME™ oil was definitely the right thing to do. What I saw in the Philippines was a different matter.
When oil is plantation farmed, the farmer is actually the plantation owner, who does little or no actual work. On a plantation, even under “fair trade” practices, the workers are unrepresented, and have no say in their jobs, their wages, or the direction the company takes. I saw plantation workers, living in extreme poverty conditions. I saw manual laborers involved in the process of moving the coconuts from the plantation to the factory, who were also unrepresented. I saw factory purchasing practices which left the factory in control of the price, not the plantation owner. It was, overall, an inequitable system.
Fair Trade USA said we could make all that right by paying a 7% premium for our coconut oil. That 7% would go to a committee of the farmers (plantation owners) who would decide how to spend that money for the community.
Nobody would earn a higher income because of this “fair trade” certification. The labourers who were excluded from earning a fair income would still be excluded. The predatory purchasing practice of the factory that underpaid for coconuts would still exist. This wasn’t fair trade, it was green washing.
How could such practices exist in a fair trade system, I asked. One of the answers is because of lack of inspection. A factory representative told me they switched to Fair Trade USA because of lower certification costs. There was no inspection of the factory, or the process of harvesting or purchasing the coconuts.
A representative from Fair Trade Canada, which is an integral part of the FLO fair trade network that Fair Trade USA abandoned, told me their clients are often approached to switch to FTUSA for lower certification fees. This only confirms a conversation I had two years ago with an FLO certified importer of soccer balls.
It is galling to me that a fair trade certifier wouldn’t play by the rules, never mind the spirit, of fair trade. It is devastating to the principles and goals of fair trade.
There are a variety of fair trade systems (our own award winning certified Fair Dinkum Fair Trade, Fair Trade Canada, Equal Exchange, and Fair for Life amongst others), each with their own idea about best helping small holders. Fair Trade USA doesn’t help small holders, doesn’t help individual labourers, and doesn’t belong. I will not purchase any products bearing the Fair Trade USA seal. There is always a better option.