A Legal Definition for Fair Trade: Will It Bridge the Gap?

Written by on July 31, 2013 in Green, Health, World - 1 Comment

thinkFairTradeFirstBookThe Fair Trade Resource Network (FTRN) recently emailed a survey to its members and supporters asking if they would support the idea of creating a legal definition of the term ‘fair trade.’ Of the 80 supporters they contacted only 20% were in support of this idea.

Jeff Goldman, the Executive Director, spoke with me about FTRN’s reasoning behind this initiative.

“Legalizing the term ‘fair trade’ has three goals,” Jeff told me.”First, it would simplify confusing definitions and the marketing efforts of fair trade. Secondly, it would accelerate growth for the producers. Third, the fair trade community is currently stuck with huge fragmentation and conflict. This could be one, compelling project that incentivizes collaboration.”

When the FTRN’s board recently met together they decided this was their single greatest idea to foster fair trade unity. They don’t pretend to believe that everyone will like the outcome of the process, but they do believe it’s better than remaining in the current state of fragmentation.

“We believe this worked well with organics. It opened up the movement and a multi-stakeholder process took place.”

The FTRN plans to act as the kick starter to the process and handle the administrative and fundraising responsibilities. But at this point, there isn’t enough to support to even begin the process.

“The most conservative members of the fair trade movement are concerned a legal definition will water down their own approach and therefore not have enough impact. And some people think Fair Trade USA has been divisive, selfish and conducted untruthful behavior, and some groups say that they aren’t ready to be at the table . . . .  Some organizations that are very excited, but at this point we need more critical mass in the movement to support it.”

However, if the movement did decide to come to the table together to create a legal definition for ‘fair trade,’ it would most likely provide huge growth benefits for the fair trade market.

“There would be so much more confidence in fair trade,” said Jeff. “The U.S. government is the single largest purchaser in world. The process of creating a legal definition would bring exposure to the movement. We saw this in the organics movement.”

A legal definition of fair trade would create a set of minimum standards that businesses would need to meet, regardless of the label they chose to market their fair trade products. Eco-Cert, Fair Trade, FLO USA, SPP, IMO—all of these labels would have the same standards. A legal definition may also produce legally approved certifiers. It’s possible that third party auditors would be required to standardize their processes.

“There’s no prescribed outcome for this process. But it could look like a tiered labeling structure with silver, gold, and platinum levels. And every time the market catches up to these standards, we could raise them again.”

The FTRN also believes that a legal definition would be clarifying for companies and that they would more easily understand what fair trade requires of them.

“A legal definition would be simplifying and clarifying. They would only meet X,Y, Z standards—or at least their certifier would. Labels like direct trade would have to conform to at least minimum legal definitions or they might be able to exceed it. It would be cool if there was a race to the top.”

But for now this process is on hold. The FTRN is still in one phase one of the project, building a critical mass of support.

“We want to do this when there is a more support.  We believe reasons to come to the table for this process will be accelerated by time. There will be more confusion and the movement will become tired of fragmentation. The fair trade movement is growing, but not as fast as it could because of disjointedness. When the movement sees this, we hope there will be kicking point and it will be compelling enough to come to the table.”

Julie Fahnestock

Julie lives in Cambridge, MA and is currently pursuing her MBA in Managing for Sustainability at Marlboro Graduate School in Vermont. She has a background in international development and grassroots organizing and is passionate about equitable wages, labor rights and the global income disparity. Julie is also a new blogger for Just Means and Socialearth. If you can't find Julie in Cambridge, she's probably on the beaches somewhere in South Florida.

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