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WORLD: Fair Trade – An Old Idea That’s Become a Fashion Statement?

Analysis by Hilaire Avril

PARIS, Sep 26 2008 (IPS) - The idea of making trade fair is as old as ethics itself.

French fair trade literature is fond of referring to Aristotle’s ‘‘Nicomachean Ethics’’, in which the Greek philosopher emphasises that ethics depend on context. The same can be said about fair trade, a concept which constantly evolves.

In Europe and the United States, several 19th century ideologies inspired communities to build self-sustaining villages around principles such as the count of Saint Simon’s utopian brand of socialism, which advocated equitable commercial relations as a pillar of social harmony. Most were short-lived.

After World War II, many of those who proffered a 20th century vision of ethical commerce were inspired by religion.

In the United States, the Christian Mennonites’ Central Committee started selling handicrafts from developing countries in charity shops in 1946.

Similarly, in France, l’Abbé Pierre, a French Catholic priest and a tireless campaigner of homeless people’s rights, set up the first network of Emmaüs shops, which sold used clothes and fair trade products to benefit his many causes.

However, this moral incarnation of trade was more akin to benevolent donations and charity than to business. Just as for humanitarian relief, the 1960s were the decade that made fair trade secular.

The term itself was coined after the 1968 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which was set out to ‘‘maximise the trade, investment and development opportunities of developing countries’’ under the slogan ‘‘trade, not aid’’.

Non-governmental organisations, such as the UK’s Oxfam and France’s Artisans du Monde (Artisans of the World) started buying, distributing and selling fair trade goods through their own networks of shops to Western consumers.

The profile of the typical fair trade consumer changed dramatically. There was a departure from the religious goodwill of the post-World War II period. In an era of increasing independence from colonial powers, buying goods that guaranteed a decent price to poor farmers from developing countries became a political act.

But fair trade sale volumes did not take off until the last decade, growing almost ten-fold since 2000 (according to figures from the Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International, a non-profit multi-stakeholder organisation that develops fair trade standards) to exceed three billion dollars in 2007.

‘‘In France, fair trade sales have increased by close to 30 percent a year,’’ says Julie Maisonhaute, who coordinates the French Platform for Fair Trade, a group of 39 organisations.

Although modern fair trade started with Latin American coffee, a commodity which still accounts for most of the volumes, several new trends account for this boom. But many are highly controversial.

According to Nicolas Messio, the CEO of Alter Mundi, a Parisian chain of glamorous fair trade shops, the recent development of new ranges of fair trade products accounts for the sector’s expansion.

‘‘Fair trade has moved away from Peruvian Piccolos; we launched prêt-à-porter collections for young consumers which now account for about half of the 2,000 product references in our shops,’’ he says.

‘‘Following the sweat shops scandals that affected many multinational clothing corporations, people became sensitive to the labour conditions their clothes are made in,’’ he explains. ‘‘But they still want to wear fashionable trainers and t-shirts – from young designers with a conscience,’’ he adds.

Fair trade’s increasing fashion-consciousness accounts for the recent boom in ‘‘fair’’ cotton trade from West Africa, a region historically lagging behind Latin America and Asia. Fair trade in coffee and crafts produced in Africa has picked up in recent years.

‘‘Fair and ‘green’ cosmetics sales are also growing fast,’’ says Messio. ‘‘That’s because it affects people’s self-image: nobody wants to put randomly sourced stuff on their face,’’ he says.

Fair trade is not only expanding its range of products, but is also changing the way it does business. Mainstream retail chains and supermarkets are increasingly stocking their shelves with products labelled ‘‘ethical’’.

In what many saw as the final move away from traditional socially conscious trade and towards professional distribution, Max Havelaar, one of the largest distributors of fair trade products, struck distribution deals with several of France’s largest supermarket chains.

The decision sparked a harsh and ongoing argument within the fair trade movement.

‘‘Fair trade in supermarkets is a contradiction in terms,’’ says Michel Besson, who heads Andines, a French online distributor of fair trade goods. ‘‘Structurally, a large distribution chain’s motive is to maximise profits and minimise costs. That goes against guaranteeing small producers a fair price for their labour – decent wages,’’ he argues.

‘‘This new trend is a world away from the initial ideals of self-management, transparency and fairness,’’ he says.

But Elodie Martin of Max Havelaar disagrees. ‘‘Specialised distribution in exclusively fair trade shops has a limited impact, as it only reaches activist consumers,’’ she says. ‘‘In order to achieve volume and make a difference, we need to go through mainstream distributors and supermarkets.’’

In the face of the heated debates between fair trade organisations, French authorities convened a round table to try to establish a legal standard. But three years of rowdy discussion yielded no agreement.

‘‘A government-backed standard would be in everyone’s interest,’’ argues Maisonhaute. ‘‘It would reassure consumers and open access to public tenders, but everyone has different standards and criteria for what constitutes fair trade,’’ she explains.

In the absence of a consensus, the French ministry for the economy created a national commission for fair trade in 2005. But so far, this fair trade watchdog exists on paper only.

The persisting lack of public regulation may precisely be the reason why fair trade in France is growing exponentially, even though it fuels an increasingly bitter controversy.

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