Producers Have Their Say in the Fairtrade System
The Fairtrade system represents more than just certification; it’s part of a dynamic relationship that is continually evolving. To consumers the label may look the same, but underlying it is a system of constant change.
One of the more recent developments was a decision to increase producer representation within the General Assembly of Fairtrade International. The members voted
unanimously in October 2011 to abandon the “one member, one vote” model that had been used in favour of one in which producers hold 50 percent of the power in the highest decision-making body of the organization.
Producers certified under the Fairtrade label have been quick to show their support. According to James Mwai, Director of Programmes at Fairtrade Africa, the decision is grounded within deep rooted concepts of equity and accountability. Moving forward, it will provide a global model for equal representation for countries in both the north and south.
“It sends a very strong signal to producers that they are respected,” says Mwai. “It ensures that producers will always be visible within the policy and strategy frameworks of the Fair Trade movement.”
Barath Mandanna, Interim Chair for the Network of Asian and Pacific Producers, says, “The decision is path breaking.” He describes the development as a progressive approach and hopes as consumers are made more aware it will bring major growth to Fair Trade.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
Michael Zelmer, Director of Communications at Fairtrade Canada, emphasized his organization’s support for the development: “It reflects that producers are partners in this. They’re not simply the main beneficiaries of Fair Trade, they also bring considerable expertise to the table that can only further the impact the Fairtrade system can have.
”Zelmer says that Fairtrade International is often misunderstood as a European organization that simply makes its own decisions that impact the lives of farmers, rather than what it is - global federation of actorscontinually working to deliver and improve upon the Fairtrade system. This new development builds on an existing collective ownership of the label with producers and further ensures their interests are well represented in the decision-making processes.
Producers will have also have a stronger voice in constitutional matters that include decisions of who becomes a member of Fairtrade International, how members are chosen, and how representatives are appointed. According to Zelmer, producers are now well-positioned to ensure the direction of the organization continues to work in their interests.
FAIRTRADE SYSTEM A MODEL FOR COLLECTIVE OWNERSHIP
The Fairtrade system has always relied on the perspectives of independent actors working together for mutual benefit. Originally started in 1988, the first Fairtrade certified product came from the co-operatives of small-scale Mexican coffee farmers, sold under the label, Max Havelaar. Today, there are more than 320 Fairtrade certified coffee co-operatives around the world. Together, they received over $21 million in Fairtrade Premium money in 2009-10, which is over and above the prices paid for their coffee.
The collective ownership models of co-operatives have been integral to the success of the Fairtrade system. Seventy five percent of Fairtrade certified producers are made up of small farmer co-operatives, and the system also relies on importers, traders, and financial institutions, some of which are run as co-operatives.
According to Fairtrade International, “the co-operative model is so successful because it brings people together to achieve common needs and aspirations in a democratic way. By joining a co-operative, producers can increase their outputs, diversify production, and band together to transport goods to market, among many more benefits.”
“Everybody has to make a living,” says Lloyd Bernhardt, Co-founder of Ethical Bean. “I need to do well, and certainly the producers need to do well. There’s no reason why we both can’t.”
FOR THE CONSUMER
Zelmer says that the change should give consumers confidence that support for Fairtrade certified products will have a positive impact on the lives of farmers and their communities. “It’s the producers themselves who know best what works for them and what doesn’t, and they have a strong hand in deciding how things work in the Fairtrade system. If they don’t think something works, then it’s up to all of us to work together to come up with something that does.”