World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) conference Milan 2015: Reflections on Fairtrade 101

IMG_6821It is 8 years since I seriously engaged with the WFTO Global conference. Then, in Blankenburg, Belgium (2007) our pioneer Equal Exchange brand was already struggling to compete in crowded UK market beginning to  commodify with Fairtrade. But it was also the year after I first travelled to Kerala to meet the farmers from FTAK and the year we launched Liberation CIC to trade cashew nuts. How far had we come? How relevant was our movement several decades since we began? Was innovation needed?

The 2015 WFTO conference was organised by AGICES the Italian World shops movement, a network of fair trade shops and partner organisations.

This year of the 13th WFTO Biennial, the main venue, Hotel Klima (with its giant green wall and eco credentials) was located in an old industrial zone undergoing transformation, a mixture of IMG_6811immigrant worker housing, old factories, new roads and next to the site of the Milan Expo… was it a homage to neoliberalism or door to sustainable futures, it’s theme ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’.

I realised that I was hoping for positive transformation and innovation and a (hopefully) critical personal reflection. Perhaps a return perhaps to Fair Trade 101. With two years behind me in Australia, now living on a few acres exploring tropical food crops, trying my hand at what I had advocated for many years I had an appetite for new insights.


Setting the scene

Keynote Speaker Palagummi Sainath was former rural affairs editor for The Hindu until departing for his journey People’s Archive of Rural India, PARI. We were stung by his eloquence and the need for a reality check, in a world seemingly out of control plunging headlong into crisis.

Neoliberalism… trades in two crops… hunger and thirst, harvest self-regenerating poverty. The multiple crisis of …water, of soil… rurality under threat, livelihoods disappearing.

A Global commodity trade, 4 companies ,Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) etc controlling the supply chain hourglass, of the soils of Africa less polluted, now more valued yet off balance sheet

Water crisis… California, experiencing its worst ever drought, where large scale dairy is exempt from regulation and soft drinks have become virtual water… the privatisation of utility continues… ex Uruguay

MARVEL Silva Ridge Estate 23 villas each with swimming pools and in a forest reserve and built by the farmers (now labourers) whose land these ‘opportunities’ now occupy. On the other side of the world less than 2% of US citizens regard farming as their occupation. 85% of US farmers’ income comes from off farm activity…

We were reminded of the terrible suicide statistic, 300,000 over the last 19 year in India alone and the link to other livelihoods. Statistics hide the interconnectedness of our rural lives. When a farm is lost a carpenter is under threat, paid 1/3 in cash and two thirds in kind, perhaps rice and veg, the potters and weavers who make the utensils and homeware are in the same chain, so bankruptcy follows and of course then migration, the largest in human history. These farmers or farm workers have swelled the ranks of the unemployed or under employed

I tried to capture one story:

‘I visited a farmer who had survived suicide due to the valiant efforts of his neighbours. Owing a debt of Rp100’000, accumulated over 3 years for high farm inputs and unpayable because of failed crops. He had drunk pesticides, the tool of choice in this grim journey but been prevented from finishing his task. His neighbours cut down his bed, removing the legs and carried him 5 kms to the nearest road then flagged a truck to take him to hospital, where I interviewed him.’

‘Instead of being thankful for them saving him from death, he was raging at his neighbours…

How am I going to pay the hospital bill. After only 4 days in hospital I owe another Rp50,000, How am I going to pay this?’

Perhaps I have lost the power of the original storyteller but here lies the connection. A farmer with no choice, a refugee prepared to risk life for a better future perhaps?

Finally he turned to civil society and the role of the State reinforcing inequality and removing safety nets of the most marginalised. We have all heard complaints from the Right of erosion to our freedom of expression… Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. He urged not to forget those following it, Articles 23 and 24, the right to organise, collective bargaining, decent work and employment and to earn a living wage. He suggested that Fair Trade should be a Human Right!

Solidarity with Farmers and Artisans from Nepal

IMG_6797Conference listened with great respect and appreciation to Chandra Prasad of Fairtrade Group Nepal, the umbrella for 9 WFTO members there. He spoke of the terrible human, infrastructural and cultural cost but demonstrated the networks capacity developed after 14 years. Members were organised and effective delivering relief to many outlying villages. Without fair trade beginnings within WFTO this group could not have responded so professionally.

Trade for Change

Carol Wills linked our present to WFTO’s organisational journey … the first global Fair Trade network to bring farmer and artisan organisations, the so called producers into a fair trade governance structure on equal footing to other stakeholders, and a critical voice at the table a decade before FI did so.

brandGeoff White Board member and NZ Trade Aid MD described ingredient branding with examples and reference to the commercial world. He asked us to understand the differing conceptual frames between certification approaches and their relationship with a business’s own brand. It helped visualise how the WFTO journey towards a Guarantee System offered a fundamental difference to the FI approach. An ‘augmented’ brand strategy reinforces strategic relationship with FT movement and differentiation based on values and commitment to movement, supports a price premium, compliments host brand marketing strategy, achieves regulatory acceptance and retains member exclusivity. It was music to my ears. How often had we heard Fairtrade doesn’t work for brands or reverts to ‘fairtrade/minimum price’

Safia Minney’s People Tree experience in developing their Guarantee System (GS) had uncovered problems in their value chain, assisted communication of FT principles within the chain and to external opinion leaders within the fashion industry. Through setting the agenda they were becoming a a rural production standard.

All WFTO members are now required to engage with and complete the new GS. Selyna Dulanjali from Selyn Exports in Sri Lanka described her engagement, as a social enterprise completing one of the first 9 pilots as ‘a sustainable system to manage our own adherence to the 9 principles of Fair Trade which we live by’. Not only that she wants to import the CIC (used by Liberation Foods) legal form to Sri Lanka

Perhaps this Guarantee system had not developed as far as I expected. Traceable cotton supplies for artisan producers of Fair Trade products remains a challenge due to the small scale of workshops. I resolved to learn more.

Workshops explored critical themes illustrated by member’s experience.

Craft retailing in specialist shops could be profitable according to the experience of TradeAid in NZ and Asha in India

Rain Morgan lead an exploration on Living Wages… a project that a WFTO working group had contributed to over the last couple of years. Immediate reaction was split by those worried about the cost of implementation but the majority saw the strategic importance of moving from a minimum wage standard. Before us lies an opportunity to position ourselves for the next few decades against the ills of our time and to move fair trade onwards, out of a tick box/balance sheet mentality, an audit paradigm, towards a theory of change, a staged journey of development against the flow, towards living wages.

The workshop put a resolution to the floor of the AGM and now WFTO will continue to integrate this work into its standards.

Deepening gender participation was not just an issue of justice but also critical to livelihood development. We heard from an ongoing WIEGO project in Africa and Latin America. Members demanded greater commitment towards gender empowerment both internally by members and to increase WFTO capacity to engage effectively on gender issues.

Recent years have seen both the destruction of local milk production and a decline in small scale farming across the developed world whilst the most marginalised sectors of society experience destruction of public safeguards and the monetary policy of austerity. Conference heard stories from Domestic Fair Trade across Europe and Latin America where solidarity trade was seen to be a new frontier. A wide range of local products were increasingly being sold in retail alongside those from the Global South. Participants both identified the risks of confusion and direct competition with traditional FT, dilution, and lack of clarity on levels of disadvantage and proposed that further work was needed to define this globally. But also saw the potential for defining a more holistic approach to a just economy and gateway to addressing issues such as climate change and food security which remained under the radar for most of FT. An exception was Ryan Zinn from Dr Bronner Soaps who described their project engagement on adaption to climate change. Across Europe especially, alliances were being forged with the Organic movement, Slow Food and social cooperatives. One commentator from Ecuador noted that our ‘legitimacy comes from inclusion’. This is surely a critical usp.

Unexpectedly a workshop on food certification revealed the depth of the farmers market movement in Brazil and Latin America. It was a joy and hidden gem to hear of chefs connecting with small scale farmers and local authorities supporting organic food markets.


In conclusion I realised that our work is more important than ever. Whilst I have missed a description of the keynote from Father Franz van der Hoff … you can by now find all of it online I hope. It’s message just as critical as 20 years ago. Now our job is both to reveal the invisible, that 70% of productive activity in the informal sector, the collateral damage from our governments neoliberal ideologies and to strengthen and expose successful alternatives through the creative collaboration our new business models engender. We must counter the dismissal of migration, the inhuman irrationality of ‘offshore solutions’ and marginalisation, demonstrating that we have inclusive solutions that can be scaled up to address the deep and necessary policy changes required resolve


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