Boston conference examines future of Fair Trade

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Column by Cassidy Herrington. E-mail [email protected]

The world marketplace lacks traceability, transparency and accountability, and the consumer is partially to blame.

Last Friday, I flew to Boston for an assembly of 750 supporters of a global economic, humanitarian and social movement, Fair Trade.

I was thrilled to be in the company of vibrant, passionate leaders who share the same interest in the welfare of suppliers in other countries. However, I left Lexington in search of truth surrounding Fair Trade, its promises and if they followed through.

Fair Trade is not a new concept but requires general explaining. Simplified, Fair Trade seeks to provide fair, premium wages to artisans and farmers in impoverished nations, so they can have a sustainable income to support themselves.

The Fair Trade Futures Conference in Boston corralled producers, students, activists and business-owners from around the world into a three-day discussion.

I spoke with coffee producers from Peru, Mexico and Nicaragua, and I listened to how Fair Trade impacted their lives. One producer, Rigoberto Contrero Diaz, represented a coffee farm in Chiapas, Mexico with 800 workers. He said before Fair Trade certification, he was unable to market the coffee.

“Our problem was, we didn’t know how,” Diaz said. “We just knew how to produce it.”

Because of this, as is the case with many coffee producers, middlemen or “coyotes” got involved and took advantage. In Diaz’s case, it was a Swiss agronomist who knew little about the culture or the dignity of the workers.

“He saw us as inexperienced in how we did our business, and instead of supporting our cooperatives, they wanted to shut us down,” Diaz said. “He did not know the life of the producer, he was just trying to make a profit.”

In 1999, Diaz’s farm became a Fair Trade cooperative and is still supplying coffee beans to coffee shops abroad, including Kentucky.

Although life is improving for coffee producers, Diaz said. “there is still a long way to go.”

This was apparent to me for the duration of the conference. The divide between global north and south pervaded, even in this forward-thinking meeting of like-minded people.

Business owners (even Fair Trade) in the United States are losing sight of why the movement was created — the producers. “Business strategies” was a frequent theme of the sessions – and amidst the splendor of chocolates, olive oil, scarves and jewelry, I felt that the hands that created them were not the loudest voice presented.

The hope therein lies in the next generation, us. The college students. Fair Trade is a business model that has potential to change lives. I heard a producer from India talk about textiles in Calcutta and how Fair Trade ensures education for children in his community. A Kenyan woman talked about Fair Trade providing opportunities for women and a subsequent increase in women attending schools and universities.

This is the future, and the key is showing the consumer where products originate. The consumer and the company must be held accountable, and social progress in the global community will certainly follow.