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Fair Trade: From Solidarity to the Standardization of Neocolonial Relations

by Ian Hussey and Joe Curnow
2 Apr 2016 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: NeoColonial Politics of Sustainability [13] | Article

Ian Hussey (PhD Candidate, Sociology, York University) and Joe Curnow (PhD Candidate, OISE, University of Toronto)


In the early 1980s, as the Reagan administration aggressively funded an imperialist war in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas reached out internationally for demonstrations of solidarity. Coffee and cotton brigades became an important strategy for supporting the Sandinista movement. The brigadistas travelled from the US, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere to Nicaragua to pick the ripe coffee cherries and cotton from peasant farms and collectives. These international solidarity brigades provided labour, alongside many larger brigades of Nicaraguan teachers and others from cities that went to the countryside to help harvest.  The international solidarity brigades acted as source of publicity for the conflict, as well as a source of foreign exchange, and some international market access for Nicaraguan crops. The presence of the international brigadistas in peasant communities also ensured a modicum of safety for the Nicaraguans engaged in the harvest, since people believed the Contras would not be willing to jeopardize the lives of Americans and others from the Global North for fear of diplomatic backlash. This was part of a broader solidarity strategy of bearing witness and leveraging privilege.[1][2][3]

Coffee and cotton served as key points of entry for solidarity relationships. The Sandinistas and their domestic and international allies recognized the Sandinistas would not be successful if the Nicaraguan economy collapsed. This is why one of the first things the Sandinistas did after taking power was nationalize coffee and cotton– they understood that controlling these crops was essential for their survival. The US embargo against Nicaraguan products jeopardized this strategy, making it nearly impossible for Nicaraguans to sell their products (chiefly coffee) to the closest large national market. Several US-based companies exploited a loophole in the embargo and began importing Nicaraguan coffee.[4] They got around the embargo by importing through a Dutch solidarity organization named Stichting Ideele Import (SII), yet they still faced significant risks.

Massachusetts-based Equal Exchange was one of the US-based businesses working with Nicaraguan coffee in the 1980s.[5] The founders of Equal Exchange organized family and friends to help fund a small shipment of two pallets of coffee, and Equal sold the coffee in the US at a premium price. In these early years, Equal Exchange bought coffee that was mostly financed by SII, who gave Equal 30 day terms upon arrival. Equal’s first shipment was seized and held by the US government. Throughout their early years, Equal Exchange was in constant negotiation with the US government, pressuring them to permit the entry of Nicaraguan coffee, and in the process, contesting the embargo’s legitimacy.

Another influential company engaged in Nicaragua solidarity was Thanksgiving Coffee Company. Using the same loophole that Equal used, Thanksgiving took a similar approach, importing coffee and selling it at a premium. In 1985, Thanksgiving sued the US government to oppose the embargo.[6] Their advocacy in Northern California and throughout the Specialty Coffee Association of America had major repercussions on the way people thought about Nicaraguan coffee.[7]

Not all of the Nicaraguan solidarity coffee was sold through roasters, or even through legal channels. Many churches and community groups were also involved in the coffee trade. As North Americans travelled to origin as part of solidarity delegations or as brigadistas, some of them brought back coffee extra-legally in their luggage, selling it from their homes and churches.  Nicaragua solidarity networks emerged across the UK, the US, Canada, and elsewhere, and these community organizations often used coffee from alternative traders, such as Friends of the Third World, Equal Exchange, and Bridgehead (Oxfam Canada’s trading arm in those days), as a fundraising strategy to simultaneously support their advocacy strategies locally and fund the struggle in Nicaragua.

We begin here because it is imperative to understand that many of the roots of fair trade are in anti-imperialist struggles rooted in solidarity. Although there are other origin stories for fair trade, the Nicaraguan solidarity experience is in many ways foundational to the emergence of fair trade in North America.

When Northerners partnered with Nicaraguan communities in the early 1980s, the foundation of the partnerships was solidarity. There was a shared commitment to a political project. People had to trust one another and assume good intentions. Northern traders took actions that supported the political leadership of the Sandinista movement. These relationships were messy and complicated; partnerships were often managed across different cultural, linguistic, and economic realities. And yet, the relationships were identified as transformative and politically powerful.

Thirty years later, fair trade has become a high-end brand deeply implicated in neocolonial processes.[8] It is now hard to see the anti-imperialist commitments of early Nicaraguan solidarity organizing in the roots of fair trade. In this article, we look at how the standardization of fair trade certification from 1988 through 2014 has worked against the more radical foundations of fair trade, replacing solidarity relations rooted in a shared commitment to anti-imperialism, trust, and shared risk with a developmentalist project that institutionalizes colonially-influenced structures. Rather than being an alternative trading system organized through relations of trust and solidarity, fair trade certification has become a neocolonial project where farmers’ voices are underrepresented and undervalued, and certification standards disproportionately create work for farmers’ organizations rather than Northern wholesale and retail businesses. Certification has morphed into a new kind of imperial authority that may be as insidious as the formal processes of old. Instead of outright colonial force, certification agencies supplant the role of power by using ‘legitimate’ structures of standardization that subvert the processes of democratic dialogue and participation—all under the aegis of fairness. Accountability, quality and sustainability, rather than solidarity, have become the keystones that fair trade orients around.

After the research methods and theoretical framework sections, our analysis begins with a detailed history of how the Fairtrade International (FTI) certification system institutionalized unequal power relations between Southern and Northern actors. We then examine the ways fair trade certification regulates the activities of Southern producers and Northern businesses. We show that the certification system has been institutionalized to disproportionately regulate the practices of Southern farmers and to leave unquestioned most of the practices of Northern businesses. We argue that this obfuscates the responsibility of Northerners to manage the ecological crisis we created, while entrenching a system that regulates the actions of Southern peasants and workers under the guise of creating a more sustainable world. The two final analytic sections explore producers’ political organizing both inside and outside the Northern-dominated certification system, including the invention of a Southern-based certification system run by and for small farmers, to show that producers continue to fight for their vision of fairer terms of international trade. We conclude by raising concerns about the move to standardization, even if led by producers, and by examining the limits of certification and the potential for reclaiming the fair trade system.


Our argument is informed by ethnographic research the two of us conducted separately and is shaped by our direct participation in the fair trade movement. Our engagement in fair trade includes our experience as National Coordinators of the Canadian Student Fair Trade Network (Hussey 2004-2008) and of the US-based United Students for Fair Trade (Curnow 2004-2008). From our respective positions, we engaged in ongoing conversations about the policy directions of FTI and our national labelling initiatives (national members of FTI). We both worked with producer organizers to develop solidarity-based advocacy strategies. Combined, we have participated in over fifteen movement conferences, five fair trade fora as part of the Specialty Coffee Association of America Expo (where FTI policy directives are hotly debated since many farmer organizations are represented at the trade show), and eight trips in conjunction with the CLAC (Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores de Comercio Justo or Latin America and Caribbean Coordinator of Small Fair Trade Producers) and Fairtrade Africa producer networks.

The article integrates data from interviews with 21 variously positioned national and international certification, business, and advocacy actors. (These interviews ranged from 22 minutes to 4.5 hours in length and took place from September 2012 to April 2013). The interviews covered several topics, including: relations between licensees and Fairtrade Canada; the trade certification done by Fairtrade Canada; the producer and trade certification done by FLO-CERT (FTI’s certification agency); relations between the national labelling initiatives and FTI; the governance of Fairtrade Canada and of FTI; and, the corporatization of fair trade. Less formal conversations with producer leaders in both Northern and Southern settings addressed several other topics, including: relations between local cooperatives, national producer networks, and the CLAC; the CLAC’s governance structure; how the CLAC participates in FTI; the organization of the Símbolo de Pequeños Productores (SPP or Small Producers’ Symbol); and relations between the CLAC and the SPP.

Document analysis has also been critical to our ongoing research. We analyzed both publicly available documents and documents we were afforded access to given our longstanding movement ties. Documents, such as annual reports, governance texts, meeting minutes, listserv conversations, public statements by officials, and marketing/advocacy materials added to our sense of how various organizations operate, who participates in them and how. We treated organizational texts as components of organizational practices and thus as important data.

Neocolonialism and Certification: Replacing Trust with Auditing

Beginning in 1988, fair trade shifted toward standardization and the development of certification agencies. The operations of fair trade certifiers have changed a lot in the last 25 years, but in general terms certification’s purpose is to monitor particular management processes of producing and trading groups. This is what Michael Power[9] calls the “control of control” in his sociology of knowledge on auditing. Once certified, producer groups, their certified products, and licensed traders get represented via a label as meeting a quality standard meant to distinguish them in the marketplace. The label is meant to prove that certified products are “fair,” “sustainable,” and deserving of consumers’ good will in the form of purchasing dollars.

The move toward formalizing and codifying fair trade relationships denotes a dramatic shift away from the foundations of solidarity and trust that characterized relations around the struggle in Nicaragua. Auditing works against the idea of trust in relationships.[10] The logic of auditing suggests that relations are not trustworthy and must be objectively measured by unbiased, outside observers. Indigenous scholars have contested the Eurowestern worldview that suggests “objectivity” is best achieved through decontextualized “reliable” audits. Scholars including Wilson, [11] Absolon,[12] Kovach, [13] Smith,[14] and Hampton [15] have instead suggested that deep and longstanding relationships with both people and place form the foundation of reliability and that the move to extract meaningful relationships from trust further reproduces colonial epistemologies.

Auditing replaces personal trust relationships by inserting a supposedly credible intermediary to validate what is happening on the ground, suggesting what is happening on the ground is not credible without the auditor’s ruling. Implicitly, fair trade certifiers position farmers and their cooperative leaders as no longer credible in their representations of what is happening on their farms and in need of a reliable outside arbitrator to signal their compliance with standards for Northern businesses and consumers to believe them. The move to standardization of fair trade relations was intended to scale up the movement, but in the process most relations in the movement were de-politicized as they became text-mediated.

Standardization is also about uniformity.[16][17] Certification imposes centrally coordinated standards on various actors living in diverse historical, geographical, material, and cultural circumstances. Void of the contextual markers that could enable relevant and specific solidarity actions, the standards fair trade certification imposes are rooted in a neocolonial worldview that promotes a unitary, Eurocentric view of progress.[18] Having a standardized system that is connected to companies that often run exoticized advertisements means many consumers often think producers are all more or less the same when, of course, there are many differences in the over one million certified producers and some of these differences are incommensurate.

Sarah Lyon[19] claims the low level of producer participation and the reinforcement of differences between producers and consumers in marketing/advocacy materials is a “negative trend” in the FTI system. It will become clear in the following sections that these colonial dynamics are not a passing trend, but are actually constitutive of fair trade certification. The FTI system builds off the historical-geographical-material infrastructure of colonial intervention, where the institutions that hold power over decision-making in the South are based in the North, mostly populated by wealthy white people, and are more accountable to Northern rather than Southern interests. Standards are set in coordination with other Northern institutions (e.g. the International Organization for Standardization and the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance) with little consultation with the Southerners who will be most affected. For these reasons, we identify the FTI certification system as a neocolonial developmentalist project.

Following Robert Young,[20] we use the concept of “neocolonialism” in this article to denote an ongoing economic hegemony in which postcolonial states, workers, and local businesses largely remain in a position of dependence vis-à-vis Global North states and capital, and Global North states, investors, and corporations continue to act in a colonialist way toward formerly colonized territories and people. Critical development scholars generally agree that the end of formal colonialism is the condition of possibility for the invention of the neocolonial development industry.[21] [22] [23] [24] International development in general and fair trade specifically are neocolonial developmentalist projects that involve state, NGO, and business actors working with complicit consumers. Postcolonial scholars have pointed out that developmentalism is a Eurocentric, teleological understanding of history; we know how these historical narratives will end in advance, with the modernization and development of everyone around the world.[25][26] Elsewhere we have used postcolonial theory to scrutinize how fair trade relations are shot through with the developed-underdeveloped binary, especially the temporal assumptions built into this binary.[27] Here, our focus is more structural and about power relations between Northerners and Southerners and how these relations have changed through the course of the movement’s institutionalization process. Namely, we problematize the fact that the FTI system spans the globe, but its centre of governance is in Europe and most of the money that flows through the system stays in the North while product advertisements often imply otherwise. In the next section, we illustrate the neocolonial structure of decision-making and capital flows within the FTI system as it has been institutionalized.

A Critical History of Fair Trade Certification

In this section, we trace the process of standardizing fair trade as a certification label, building an international regulating system, and moving toward a developmentalist — rather than solidarity — framework as the coordinating ideology. The institutionalization process led to increasing amounts of power and resources being vested in Northern institutions while decisions were being made on behalf of Southern producers’ organizations, often with little or no engagement. The standardization of working conditions and organizational forms in the Global South came with the institutionalization of unequal power relations between Northern and Southern leaders.

Fair trade certification grew out of the efforts by an Oaxaca, Mexico-based producer organization named Union de Comunidades Indigenas de la Region del Istmo (UCIRI or the Union of Indigenous Communities of the Isthmus Region) to sell their coffee internationally. UCIRI’s early marketing efforts failed because of the now defunct quota system coordinated by the International Coffee Agreement. Certification was the third model attempted by UCIRI to market their coffee internationally. They first played with the idea of building a roaster and then they attempted to partner with a European supermarket chain. Eventually Francisco Vanderhoff Boersma, a Dutch priest who continues to work with UCIRI, formalized a relationship with a small Dutch NGO called Solidaridad to establish the first fair trade certifier, Max Havelaar Netherlands, in 1988. Fair trade certification thus first focused on coffee, but the system has grown to include many other agricultural products, as well as gold and sports balls.

Between 1988 and 1997, fourteen national labelling initiatives were established across Europe, North America and in Japan in three certification systems – Max Havelaar, TransFair International, and the Fairtrade Foundation. Producers participated in the governance of these three systems in various ways, and had representation on some but not all of the boards of directors of these fourteen national initiatives. The governance of the various national initiatives is not and has never been uniform. In the TransFair International system, for example, producer assemblies had voice but no vote.[28] By contrast, producers were on the boards of Max Havelaar and of the Fairtrade Foundation from their inceptions. Producers also participated and voted in Max Havelaar’s bi-annual General Producers Assembly that first convened in 1990, and producers had a minority number of votes in the international General Assemblies between the three certification systems that began meeting in 1995 prior to their merger into FTI in April 1997.[29]

When FTI was established, producers were excluded from the federation’s board. In this regard, the more bureaucratic nature of TransFair, who treated producers more like consultants than equal partners, won out against Max Havelaar and the Fairtrade Foundation. One producer attended FTI’s board meetings from 1997 to 1999, but only had observer status. FTI’s first governance reform was the election of two producers to the organization’s board in 1999 – one from Latin America and the other from Africa.[30] At the end of this board term in 2001, two different producers and two traders were elected to the board. These producers were elected to represent their local associations and not any larger representative body of producers, which was not allowed by the FTI constitution at the time even though regional producer networks existed in Latin America and Africa in the late-1990s (see Section 6).

In September 2003, FTI formally began their efforts to become compliant with the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 65 accreditation program – “the worldwide quality standard for certification organisations”[31] – by turning the institution’s certification department into a separate legal entity called FLO-CERT. FTI owns FLO-CERT and the operations of the two organizations are intertwined, but they are governed separately to remain compliant with ISO 65. This is significant because it marks a change in structure and philosophy for FTI. Until this point, FTI had not been in the business of auditing (although it claimed to be), and from this point on FLO-CERT became FTI’s dedicated entity to regulate producers. This changed the nature of FTI’s work, and they became able to scale dramatically while circulating a certification label that they backed up with the “proof” provided by FLO-CERT. In this two-headed system, FTI sets fair trade standards and FLO-CERT interprets those standards and inspects producers and traders to ensure their compliance. There are a few national initiatives outside of Europe, such as Fairtrade Canada, that do trade certification for licensees’ Global North business activities. In the Global South, most of the everyday work of enforcing the certification standards is done in producer organizations by technical staff and elected officials, creating a burden of auditing fees and administrative costs while the end products are marketed in the Global North as “helping” the deserving poor of the South.

In the FTI/FLO-CERT system, the national initiatives, who are member-organizations of the FTI federation, license businesses in their jurisdiction to sell certified products. There are now 19 national initiatives and three marketing organizations covering 27 countries in North America, Europe, South Africa, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.[32] The distribution of power in the federated system is remarkably similar to imperial divisions of the globe. Fair trade commodities are produced in various former colonies and sold predominantly in niche and mainstream markets in Europe and North America. The movement by and large does not include production from Indigenous communities located in white settler colonies like Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, nor non-Indigenous producers in places like Canada and the US who often exploit migrant workers with little heed to basic labour rights.

Producer representatives did not gain their third and fourth board seats (4 of 14 at the time, now 4 of 11) until mid-2004 and, importantly, FTI’s constitution was not changed until 2006 to stipulate that producer positions on the board were allocated to the three regional producer networks (CLAC, Fairtrade Africa, and Network of Asia and Pacific Producers (NAPP)) and that the producer representatives have to be elected through their respective networks. This constitutional change was not freely given by the Northern actors in FTI; rather, it came about because the CLAC threatening to withdraw from FTI unless formal producer representation within FTI improved.

The 2006 constitutional reform also saw the producer networks be named “members” of FTI for the first time, so the networks also gained a minority stake in FTI’s General Assembly at this time.[33] The General Assembly is akin to an annual general meeting and is an important international forum for strategy and policy discussions, so the fact that producers were not allowed to vote in the General Assembly until 2006 is politically significant and telling of the geopolitical power dynamics within FTI during its first decade of operation. Merling Preza, a former President of the CLAC, avers that since FTI’s 2006 constitutional change the producer networks have used their access to the General Assembly to quash proposals producers see as operating against their interests.[34]

A further FTI constitutional change in 2011 saw the producer networks gain half the votes in the General Assembly; this is why FTI now claims that producers own half of the system.[35] This move by FTI was done for two main reasons. Firstly, it better positioned FTI in relation to Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) after the US national initiative split from FTI in 2011 and became FTI’s most viable competitor in the global market for fair trade certification services. Secondly, the emergence of the SPP as a Southern-based fair trade certifier pushed FTI to give producers more power within the General Assembly and more respect overall. The SPP’s success has shifted perception of producer organizations as somewhat passive recipients of aid to more proactive players (more on the SPP in Section 7). As we detail in the following section, FTI’s history of being dominated by Northern actors and interests has resulted in the geographically uneven regulation of Southern producer organizations and Northern businesses.

Geographically Uneven Regulation

FTI and FTUSA each coordinate a global system of social relations through which certification practices organize the production and trade of commodities that are designated as meeting the social and environmental criteria laid out in the certification standards of each institution. Certification in both of these systems involves two activities: auditing (an annual or biannual site visit to observe facilities and collect documentation) and reporting (a text-mediated process that occurs between audits in which documentation is provided by producing groups and traders to the certifier).

Certification of Southern producer organizations is a group certification, not a certification of individual farms or hired labourers (except in cases where FTUSA certifies unorganized coffee farmers). Certification of traders is a product certification, not a certification of the business as a whole. The fact that fair trade certification is a group certification in the South and a product certification in the North is a key indicator of the geographically uneven nature of FTI’s and of FTUSA’s systems. Fair trade certifiers require documented proof that producer groups are organized and making decisions in ways that comply with standards produced by institutions that have been historically dominated by Northern voices. Yet, fair trade certification of Northern businesses is not concerned with how companies are structured and make decisions or with the majority of their operations; rather, the certifiers’ focus narrows when commodities enter Northern consumer markets. What this means is the certifier becomes solely concerned with the traceability of the commodities in question as they are processed (e.g. coffee roasting and packaging). So retailing giants such as Starbucks and Wal-Mart can quash their Northern employees’ union organizing efforts and commit to selling a small percentage of their products as fair trade certified, and certifiers such as FTI and FTUSA will gladly work with them and even brag about the “sustainability” efforts of these corporations.[36] If producer groups acted in a similar fashion, it would be a major concern for the certifiers. This geographic imbalance implicitly suggests producer organizations need to be managed and Northern corporations do not because they are not, as one of our interviewees put it, “the troubled child”.

As an example of the uneven ways standards are deployed against farmers, we look briefly at the environmental standards that have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented as part of fair trade certification. The environmental provisions of FTI’s standards include regulations for farmers to avoid use of the worst pesticides and instead use integrated pest management where possible. The standards also require farmers to actively combat environmental degradation using strategies for the prevention of soil erosion, improvement of soil fertility, sustainable use of water sources, sustainable waste management, prohibition of GMOs, protection of biodiversity, use of renewable energy, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.[37] Beyond these basic standards, FTI is increasingly thinking about the implications of climate change for their supply chains. As a result, two new standards are being proposed: one to promote carbon credits and the other to “promote best practice in terms of climate change adaptation.”[38]

FTI’s move toward a “Fairtrade Carbon Credit” is troubling. Others[39][40] have argued against carbon credits, asserting that these strategies merely allow wealthy Northerners to buy the right to pollute more and have poor Southern folks work to protect or develop swaths of land in specific ways in order to “make up for” Northerners’ pollution. This strategy reinforces colonial relationships and requires Southern communities to do the work to enable Northern industrialization. These schemes have also been shown to increase the costs of land and intensify land grabbing.[41][42][43]

Besides these new programs, FTI’s standards increasingly attempt to govern the mundane work practices of farmers and farm workers. For example, to remain compliant farmers have to carefully manage where their water comes from and where it goes, and make choices about inputs. In many cases, farmers do this because it is required, not because it makes sense for their context. Thus, demands on farmers’ labour are increased and their costs are amplified in an attempt to be compliant with externally imposed standards that are universalized only in the Southern part of the FTI system.

There are no environmental regulations we are aware of for fair trade coffee in the Global North, despite the fact that roasting, shipping, and packaging coffee are environmentally damaging. There are no constraints around water usage, using recycled content, or managing carbon use or emissions for Northern licensees. In an extreme case, we note the increased use of the Keurig coffee machine. Keurig Green Mountain is one of the world’s largest sellers of fair trade certified coffee. The company was a licensee in the FTI system for over a decade and is now a licensee in FTUSA’s system. The business invented single brew coffee pods commonly known as “K-Cups”, which are plastic cups, filled with coffee, and sealed with a foil top, all of which is disposable. This way of making coffee is marketed as being convenient for consumers, but it is possibly the most environmentally destructive way to make a cup of coffee. K-Cups cannot be recycled and in 2013 alone 8.3 billion plastic K-Cups ended up in landfills.[44] This aspect of Keurig Green Mountain’s business and similar operations of other Northern corporations are of no official concern to either FTI or FTUSA.

While limiting pesticide use is important for farmers, farm workers, and those living downstream, the Southern small farmers’ behaviours that are regulated do not alone have the capacity to create the fundamental changes necessary to prevent large-scale ecological disasters. Over a million certified farmers and farm workers taking these steps is significant in terms of environmental impact, but it pales in comparison to the environmental destruction of even one major Northern retailer whose behaviours are outside the scope of the certification process. Yet, Keurig Green Mountain, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Nestlé, and other corporations benefit from the greenwashing of their brands on the backs of Southern small farmers. Rather than focusing on system change in Northern countries, fair trade products from these and similar corporations are marketed as an appropriate and expedient way to intervene in the ecological crisis.

Having analyzed the history of the institutionalization of unequal power relations in FTI and the geographically uneven regulation coordinated by FTI’s standards, we turn now to producers’ political organizing across countries and regions, their rabble rousing in FTI, and the CLAC’s invention of a Southern-based certification system run by and for small farmers to show that far from taking Northern bureaucrats’ affronts to their dignity laying down, Southern producers are organized, politically savvy, and willing to fight for their vision of fairer terms of international trade.

Producers’ Political Organizing

In 1996, Latin American producers became the first to organize themselves through transnational networks. After eight years of building cross-border relationships through coffee, banana, and honey product networks, fair trade producers in Latin America and the Caribbean established the CLAC in 2004. The CLAC now has members in 21 countries, thirteen of which have national networks that feed into the CLAC.[45] There are also product specific networks in the region for coffee, bananas, honey, cacao, sugar, juices and fresh fruit, and others are in development.[46]

The African producers were the second to organize on a transnational level as fair trade producers. In 1999, producer groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda formed the East Africa Fairtrade Regional Coordinating Body. Ghanaian and Rwandan producers joined the coordinating body in 2003.[47] A year later, the Africa Fairtrade Network was founded.[48] The network changed its name to Fairtrade Africa in 2010, the same year the network organized the first Fairtrade Africa Forum, where producers shared best practices with each other and participated in business training.[49] Fairtrade Africa has four smaller regional networks and product specific networks for coffee, cacao, and tea; networks for cotton, sugar, and gold are being developed.[50][51]

The NAPP was the last producer network to form. Although Asian producers have participated in fair trade since the early 1990s, the first meeting to organize the NAPP was not held until June 2005.[52] The NAPP’s first General Assembly was in Bangkok in September 2006.[53] Producers from ten countries were represented (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and China). The producer network was officially established in 2007.

There is a history of disagreement amongst the three producer networks and between the networks, especially the CLAC, and FTI. During an international meeting in 1999, there were several verbal confrontations between Latin American producer representatives and FTI officials. The Latin Americans eventually broke off from the larger meeting to have their own meeting without any Europeans or North Americans. Some of the Asian and African producer representatives joined this impromptu meeting, but, as Victor Perezgrovas, an important early Latin American producer representative and a FTI board member for 2004-2007, explains, “[the Asians and Africans] maintained a more neutral position and one of respect towards the formal structures of [FTI]. The Latin Americans immediately challenged paradigms, structures and precepts; because it was clear that in these kinds of meetings we didn’t feel welcome.”[54]

Four years later, FTI’s 2003 General Assembly (called the “Fairtrade Forum” at the time) marked the first time that African and Latin American producer representatives came to agree on shared criticisms of FTI’s governance processes and certification standards (i.e. the exclusion and later under-representation of producers we discussed earlier). For many years it was more difficult to find common ground between the Latin American and Asian producer representatives because, as Perezgrovas states, “our main disagreement with [FTI] was the entrance of plantations, and because the tea plantations of India were the first ones to obtain certification, dialogue between us and the Asian producers was rendered practically impossible.”[55] The CLAC’s communiqué that was presented to FTI’s 2007 General Assembly included a statement on the network’s opposition to the certification of new plantations. In the case of plantations that are already certified by FTI, the CLAC suggested the workers should participate as co-owners of the plantation. However, with the entrance of more plantations into the FTI certification system in Latin America in recent years, the CLAC increasingly has to also represent the interests of its members who work on plantations. This means within the CLAC and the other two networks there are divergent interests regarding the participation of plantations and what direction FTI should take. Despite this history of confrontations between the producer networks, according to Marike de Peña, the current President of the CLAC and, as of 2014, Chairwoman of FTI’s board, relations have steadily improved amongst the networks and they now try to be a united voice within FTI even though some differences between the networks remain.[56]

Other longstanding differences between the CLAC and FTI over specific certification issues remain. In their 2007 communiqué, the CLAC demanded that importers guarantee pre-financing to producer cooperatives. This is one of the foundational principles of fair trade, but large corporations have not consistently honoured this principle in recent years.[57] The communiqué also declared the CLAC’s opposition to FTI moving into certifying gold and other minerals because of the environmental impact of these activities and the negative impact mining has had and continues to have on farming communities worldwide. It seems the CLAC’s concerns about mining have lost out to Northern desires to wear “sustainable” gold and diamond wedding rings.

Despite these grievances, the resolutions passed by the CLAC in its 2012 General Assembly reaffirmed that the network will continue to work within the FTI system.[58] This is understandable given that the majority of the CLAC’s members continue to sell through the FTI system and the CLAC as their representative needs to advocate for their interests within the system. With the increasing participation of transnational corporations and major supermarket chains in the FTI system, the economic interests of many producers are tied to large corporate contracts. But, the CLAC has also developed a transformative strategy alongside its continued participation in the FTI system, a producer-led and controlled model of certification called the Small Producers’ Symbol (SPP). This political strategy is outlined and assessed below.

The SPP: Certification By and For Small Farmers

The CLAC established the SPP as an alternative to certification systems governed by Northerners. The project to develop the SPP started to gain traction in 2008 when the Fundación de Pequeños Productores Organizados (FUNDEPPO or the Foundation of Organized Small Producers) was incorporated in Mexico to manage the SPP. FUNDEPPO was founded as an arm of the CLAC, but it and the SPP both now operate independent of the CLAC. Unlike FTI’s board of directors where producers are in the minority and FTUSA’s board that has one token Southern representative, FUNDEPPO’s board comprises six producers and two Northern traders.

In 2010, the SPP began to certify producer cooperatives throughout Latin America. As of 28 November 2014, the SPP has certified 63 producer cooperatives and approved nine Northern buyers.[59][60] Most of the certified producers are located in Latin America and the Caribbean, but the SPP can certify cooperatives in other regions and has certified one cocoa and coffee cooperative in Indonesia.

The SPP has a standards committee comprising four producers and two Northern traders. This stands in stark contrast to FTI’s process that is coordinated by technical staff located in Germany. The SPP’s standards are developed through a process of dialogue with producer groups. By contrast, from time-to-time FTI consults with producer groups across the system, but producers do not control the consultation process and they have no guarantee their concerns will be taken into account because ultimately technical staff in FTI’s standards committee and standards unit make decisions on the system’s standards. The SPP has also developed its standards to operate differently than those of FTI. Unlike FTI, in the SPP the idea is not to create a ‘one-size fits all’ model through the standards committee, but rather to create norms that can then be modified through a dialogue with representatives of specific cooperatives, the national producer networks, and the CLAC.

The SPP’s standards that buyers must meet demand a higher commitment than FTI demands. For example, FTI requires traders to buy a minimum of five percent of their total volume of coffee as FLO-CERT certified, but FTI and the national initiatives have repeatedly broken this rule to bring large corporations into the system.[61] In the SPP, a business has to initially commit to buying five percent of its total purchases through the SPP in order to join the system. Buyers must then increase their commitment to SPP products by five percent annually until a minimum of 25 percent is achieved.

At the CLAC’s 2012 General Assembly, which was held just prior to the SPP’s second congress, participating producer representatives recognized that if the SPP is to maintain its democratic governance practices it will be essential to maintain ties with the CLAC’s product networks and national producer networks.[62] It is the incorporation of these organizations into the governance of the SPP that makes the certifier’s structure representative of small producers in the region, since these organizations are composed of representatives elected from producer cooperatives. The combination of representative and participatory democratic mechanisms in the CLAC and SPP means these organizations are more democratically accountable to their members than FTI and the national initiatives.

Many fair trade leaders in the South and the North describe the SPP as a certifier that holds closer to the original values on which the institutionalized fair trade movement was founded: cooperative organization, small-scale production, and democratic control. While this is true, the SPP is also a move toward further democratization that is led by producers and located in the South. What the SPP has achieved to date is impressive, but one issue that will hinder the growth of the certifier in the coming years is many producers who want to join the SPP will have to pay for the certification at an additional cost to any other certifications they already have.


We are glad to see that despite the neocolonial structure and history of fair trade certification, and perhaps because of it, there are some alternatives emerging in the fair trade movement that seek to re-center solidarity. Indeed, there have always been actors from both the North and the South who have resisted the neocolonial institutionalization of fair trade. These efforts offer small glimpses of what might be possible, but they too are burdened by the logics of developmentalism and standardization. While we celebrate the reclaiming of leadership and direction setting represented by moves toward unifying the Southern producer networks and the development of their own labelling initiative, we are wary. If, as we claim, fair trade at the scale we now know it is necessarily mired in neocolonial systems and standardization of behaviours, is there a way for social and environmental sustainability regimes to be anything other than reproductive? What is the space for solidarity and anti-imperialism in certification today, or in the marketplace in general?

There is a risk the SPP will come to reproduce the same problematic logic characteristic of previous fair trade institutionalization processes. As a business, and one that will be required to scale if it is to provide a real alternative to FTI, FTUSA and other Northern certification systems, the SPP will have to grow and address the problem of uniform standards across geographically and culturally diverse growers. To sell to Northern consumers accustomed to fair trade, they will be required to claim to be a consumer guarantee. Additionally, the establishment of the SPP creates just one more set of standards for farmers’ organizations to be evaluated against. At first blush, setting up more bureaucracy for farmers seems unfair. The difference, we hope, is in who controls and manages the SPP– who has the power to decide what the standards are, how they ought to be evaluated, and by whom. There is potential in how much value growers are able to capture by selling through the SPP, specifically around the SPP’s incremental commitment standard for Northern businesses that is significantly different from how FTI and FTUSA orient toward Northern businesses.

Is that enough to undermine the colonial underpinnings of the system? We remain concerned, but inclined to take a leap toward trust once again. We have witnessed a certain pride some growers have exhibited in participating in a Southern-run alternative to FTI. Who owns the certification and who sets the standards matters deeply to farming communities we have spent time with. For now, with the SPP still in emergent stages, it is rooted in relationships. Few Northern companies have taken the risk to partner with the CLAC on this, except those who have established relationships. For many of those buyers and their consumers, the relationships with farmers that the CLAC represents has always been what is most important to them. At this point, the SPP is reliant on relationships with both their base of small farmers and with their buyers, and everyone involved is acting out of resistance to the neocolonial certification systems based in the North that they are contesting. Those engaged in the SPP hope for something better and ultimately trust that small farmers making decisions for themselves are the only ones capable of visioning and creating the future they desire and deserve.


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Ian Hussey is a Research Manager at the Parkland Institute, a progressive public policy think tank housed at the University of Alberta. He is also a PhD candidate in sociology at York University.
All posts by: Ian Hussey | Email | Website

Joe Curnow is a Vanier Scholar and a PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
All posts by: Joe Curnow | Email | Website

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