Fair Trade Federation Conference attendees

Beyond the Label: Building Better Fair Trade Businesses: A look at the 2012 Fair Trade Federation Conference

In the midst of Fair Trade labeling debate small businesses that link consumers with artisans and farmers in the Global South maintain a clear focus: How do we continue to support the artisan communities we have partnered with in bringing Fair Trade products to our customers?

While the debate between Fair Trade labeling organizations Fairtrade International (FLO) and Fair Trade USA (formerly Transfair USA) rages on, 162 Fair Trade retailers (myself included), wholesalers and producers gathered last month in Bellevue, Washington for the Fair Trade Federation (FTF) Conference to strengthen connections, share information and ultimately better our businesses.

FTF is a trade association that strengthens and promotes North American organizations fully committed to Fair Trade, a just and sustainable global economic system in which purchasing and production choices are made with concern for the well being of people and the environment.

Founded in the late 1970s by a group of alternative trade organizations, including Global Exchange, FTF has 248 current members, with a majority engaged in the production and sales of Fair Trade crafts and an increasing percentage of Fair Trade commodities. The FTF recently opened up membership to include fully committed Fair Trade cafes. FTF business membership is determined by an initial screening and an annual renewal process.

Fair Trade Federation logo

The FTF member logo, while not a label of Fair Trade certification, is used to identify member businesses. This is particularly useful in the identification of Fair Trade crafts, since there is currently no certification label for craft products that represents the diversity in raw materials and production techniques.

Most FTF members seem to agree that a certification of crafts would hurt Fair Trade craft production on all levels by generalizing standards and thus creating an advantage for larger scale factory based production.  Currently under debate is the question about whether FTF member businesses should be allowed to include the FTF member logo on Fair Trade products they sell. The FTF board of directors is in the process of developing a new policy about this based on member feedback.

As the program director of the Global Exchange Fair Trade Stores, I attended the FTF Conference with the intent to build coalitions, share best practices and bring home concrete strategies for building on our 20 years in Fair Trade business….to get beyond the label.

Throughout a series of workshops, transparency was encouraged as a core principle of business growth.  FTF members opened their books to each other, sharing costing procedures, design expertise, inventory control and financial management.  In a world where cutthroat competition rules the marketplace, it is a refreshing reminder that cooperation and full-disclosure are pillars of strength within the Fair Trade movement.

Hmong weaver in Thailand Photo Credit: Global Exchange

The FTF defines transparency and accountability as one of its core principles:

Fair Trade involves relationships that are open, fair, consistent, and respectful. Members show consideration for both customers and producers by sharing information about the entire trading chain through honest and proactive communication. They create mechanisms to help customers and producers feel actively involved in the trading chain. If problems arise, members work cooperatively with fair trade partners and other organizations to implement solutions.

In a roundtable session between Fair Trade producers, wholesalers and retailers, a jarring reference was made to the “gas station model” in which four gas stations open on opposite corners of the same intersection.  This intersection becomes a destination and business for all four establishments improved.  Similarly, the bolstering of Fair Trade business must be done collectively and with the well being of artisans and farmer producers at its core.

During conference meal times, Fair Trade percussion instruments were distributed amongst producers, retailers and wholesalers and successively played to create layers of rhythm.  The heartbeat of the rhythm was held by the producers and the wild music-making a blaring representation of how the Fair Trade movement differs from conventional business.  The gas station model is one example of how Fair Trade business can apply conventional business techniques to strengthen our business models which are based on more than just the bottom line, but rather people, planet, AND profit.

While the labeling of Fair Trade certified commodities is critical in defining the future of the Fair Trade movement, we continue to move forward as a growing Fair Trade business network committed to strengthening Fair Trade as a positive alternative business model.


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