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by Bill Harris, Café Campesino President

Robert Johnson, the famous Mississippi bluesman who Eric Clapton called "the most important blues musician who ever lived," recorded the classic Cross Road Blues almost seventy years ago. Legend has it that this song loosely chronicles the day that Robert sold his soul to the devil at the cross of Mississippi's Highway 61 and 49 in exchange for becoming the greatest blues player of all time.

"Standin' at the crossroad, baby, risin' sun goin' down"

Great tensions currently exist in the Fair Trade movement. We are indeed standing at the crossroads and this movement is in danger of, like Robert, selling its soul in the name of volume to powerful players who certainly don't have stellar track records in terms of playing "fair."

An appropriate way to frame the fundamental tension is to term it a "mission" versus "market" based view of the future of Fair Trade. Is the goal of the movement to introduce small producers to larger markets by adjusting the Fair Trade model in order to accommodate the needs of corporate buyers; or to convince new corporate entrants to the fair world to adjust their practices in order to accommodate the needs of the farmers?

The "market" argument for mainstreaming Fair Trade by recruiting companies like WalMart, Sam's Club and now Nestle to the movement is straightforward – 1) greatly increased consumer exposure and 2) more volume for producers. On the surface, this seems reasonable and when a 100% Fair Trader like Café Campesino argues against this development it can easily appear to be selfishly motivated to protect our interests and market. In actuality, we have consistently benefited from this mainstream exposure to Fair Trade because we hear that many of our customers stumbled upon Fair Trade through mainstream channels — and then began searching for committed Fair Traders and found us. When we argue against the rapid corporatization of Fair Trade, we do so to protect the movement's concepts and principles. Which leads me to the "mission-based" approach to Fair Trade advocated by a group of folks that I often call Fair Traders.

Fair Traders are not chasing demographics and market research and consumer surveys — we are too busy doing the work to which we are deeply committed. We believe that we can trade with integrity, that both parties can benefit and make a living, and that trade can help bridge the deep cultural and economic rifts that exist between so many people and societies. Fair Traders work daily to understand the impact of their businesses on the lives of their trading partners. We seek to verify and measure the benefits our trading partners accrue while also working with them to identify and address problems and shortcomings of the relationship. Ultimately, Fair Traders are as concerned about the health and sustainability of our trading partners' enterprises as we are about our own.

So where is the tension? Why can't these mission-driven idealists continue to co-exist and flourish alongside the more practical corporations that are now dipping their big toe in the rapidly growing Fair Trade market? Well...we can...maybe. But most of the trends and developments that we see as the corporate players enter the market point this movement in directions that do not bode well for the little innovators like Café Campesino and, more importantly, for the farmers.

We hear from farmers that they need higher prices — the new corporate entrants seem to be pressing for no price changes or lower Fair Trade prices to gain in higher volume. We hear from farmers that these new big Fair Trade buyers and their agents dictate the terms of the deal — while the essence of Fair Trade is supposed to be mutually beneficial relationships and open negotiations. We hear from farmers that they desperately need pre-financing of their crops and we understand that this is required of anyone claiming to offer Fair Trade coffee — but we also hear from farmers that many claiming to be Fair Trade buyers do not offer pre-financing. We know that we will never really understand all of the challenges that face a poor coffee farmer who is simply trying to feed his family and get the kids through school — but we know that by regularly visiting with farmers in their communities and inviting their representatives to our community we begin to construct a foundation for understanding. We doubt that the large corporate buyers pack their sleeping bag if they even visit the communities. No need to read between the lines, is there? We don't like the general trends that we are seeing in this movement.

In our view, two forms of Fair Trade have emerged and I borrow terminology to describe them from Jane Goodall's description of the current state of the organic movement in her book Harvest of Hope. The market-based approach represents a "shallow" version of Fair Trade as practiced by corporations who buy a small portion of their products under licensing agreements that allow them to market their coffee as Fair Trade certified and then crank up the PR machine to gain consumer support for their company through their association with the movement. Fair Traders continue practicing a "deep" version of Fair Trade as defined by organizations like the Fair Trade Federation and represented by long-standing relationships with trading partners. "Shallow" Fair Trade meets the minimum standards but lands far short of the greater ideals and principles. Meanwhile "deep" Fair Trade incessantly guards the ideals and principals upon which this movement was based and applies upward pressure to Fair Trade standards that are loosely interpreted and sometimes ignored by the shallow players.

"I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked east and west"

Where does this leave a little company like Café Campesino? Are we stuck at the cross roads...looking east and west? What do you do when a concept that you have poured your heart and soul into — the concept of "Fair Trade" — appears to be slowly and systematically reduced through slick marketing and branding to simply mean "fair price" at best and at worst is used as a sly form of corporate trade-washing? First, we are circling up the wagons and paying careful attention to the company that we keep. More than ever before, we feel the need to strategically move in unison with our fellow members of Cooperative Coffees and the Fair Trade Federation, all of whom are deeply committed to the core principles of the Fair Trade. Second, we will fight these negative trends by speaking out about them and better defining and communicating our vision for the Fair Trade movement. Third, we will place great trust in our belief that consumers are smart and supporters of the Fair Trade movement are really looking for alternative, innovative economic models — not Nestle with a Fair Trade sticker on it (note to self: if we are wrong on this point, we will bow out gracefully and call this all a grand, fun-filled but failed experiment.) Finally, as we stand at this Fair Trade crossroad, we will listen and look not east to Europe or west to California — but to the south for guidance and inspiration from our trading partners. They alone possess the knowledge, wisdom and grace to help us better understand and define this concept of "trading fairly."

We hope that a constructive, rather than destructive, solution can be found concerning these tensions in the Fair Trade movement – but we feel that we will compromise our values and the real power of this movement if we step aside and allow "market-based" Fair Trade to engulf the movement. We envision a world where all trade is conducted according to Fair Trade principals – and this vision demands that corporations revisit and redefine their values if they truly want to trade fairly, not step in and conveniently redefine ours standards in order to tap into growing consumer demand for fairly traded products.

Bill Harris is a long-time Robert Johnson fan and president of Café Campesino. Robert Johnson's story can be found on Wikipedia and you can also listen to a bit of the Cross Road Blues.

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