John Wilkinson, PhD, is Associate Professor and Director of the Graduate Center for Development, Agriculture and Society (CPDA), Federal Rural University, Rio de Janeiro and an expert on agrofood systems and global trade. He will be participating in the Global Food Ethics international working group meeting scheduled to convene October 2014, a collaborative effort to identify the distinctively ethical disagreements that impede progress towards food security worldwide.  We asked him to answer some questions about fair trade in the context of Brazil and other low and middle income countries.


What does the domestic fair trade Market in Brazil look like today?


Here in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at our Graduate Center in Development, Agriculture and Society (CPDA) I coordinate a research group which over the last several years has studied a diversity of what we call “special quality” markets, among which, fair trade. Gilberto Mascarenhas and Zina Caceres Benavides each concluded theses on fair trade and these responses to your questions are very much based on the work we have done together, chapters of which appeared in the publication, Fair Trade the challenges of transforming globalization (Routledge, 2007) of which I was co-editor.


Fair Trade emerged in Brazil as an off-shoot of the two international branches of Fair Trade, the Fair Trade Labelling Organization (FLO) and the International Federation of Alternative Traders (IFAT). FLO is a third party certification system which aims to access mainstream markets with fair trade products. IFAT works more informally through global networks, dedicated shops and participatory certification, with a focus on the farm rather than individual products. There was a natural division of labor between the two movements to the extent that the latter focused primarily on artisan non-food activities.


In Brazil, FLO has had its own representation and has worked primarily with coffee and orange juice for export. Brazilian certification bodies interested in Fair Trade have been primarily associated with forestry products, the Amazon and sustainability. NGOs more identified with IFAT are closer to the “Ethical and Solidarity Trade” movement, an expression of the solidarity economy which has now been adopted as government policy. The Fair Trade movement in Brazil, therefore, always had an autonomous collective identity and became organized into the multi-stakeholder platform called Faces of Brazil.


Inspired also by the Mexican example the Brazilian movement always focused on the specificity of the South, which involved three components – a claim for greater representation in the international movement, the promotion of South-South fair trade, and the development of a Brazilian Fair Trade system.


The Brazilian domestic mainstream market for fair trade is inexpressive. The emergence of an important upper-middle class has been identified as an opportunity for developing fair trade products in Brazil and some Fair trade firms have invested in this possibility. SEBRAE, Brazil´s national organization in support of small and medium firms, has also supported initiatives in this direction.


Two factors, however, are influencing the development of fair trade style markets in Brazil. The first relates to the way the notion of sustainability increasingly incorporates fair trade criteria, as the social component of sustainability gains in importance. “Sustainable” products, therefore, have become the privileged reference for what might in other contexts have been fair trade niches.


And secondly, government policy has mobilized around fair trade within its “Ethical and Solidarity Trade” program, which is promoted within the framework of the solidarity economy movement. Here the focus is on the organization of small-scale producer cooperatives and associations to attend popular markets. Increasingly the government procurement programs have become the central thrust of marketing strategies, particularly in the case of basic foodstuffs and family farm production.


What should the role of States and international organizations be in protecting and promoting fair trade?


FLO has adapted to the demands of a third party certification driven market. The demands of such certification systems and the requirement of scale in mainstream supply make the participation of small producers, the original object of the FT movement, increasing difficult. International organizations should, therefore, work to make group and participatory certifications systems more feasible and acceptable.


The rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the emerging economies, combined with the prolonged crises in the economies of the “North”, has meant that many international organizations are now re-positioning themselves in relation to southern markets. In these markets, as we have seen, the notion of sustainability has often overtaken the separate FT label. Of key importance, therefore, is the promotion of social criteria within the sustainability forums, not only with regard to working conditions, but also defending the participation of micro and small firms in supply chains.


In the ’90s, the central focus was on the market opportunities opened up by a middle class sensitive to social, health and environmental concerns, and preoccupied not only with product quality, but also with the conditions of production. Todays these concerns persist, although the crisis has taken its toll on the dynamics of these markets. A major new factor, however, has been the emergence of public procurement markets, particularly stimulated by broad concerns with food security. In Brazil, there are two such national programs. One of these involves guaranteed purchases of family farm products. The second is more specific and relates to school meals programs. Here also public policy in Brazil demands that 30% of school meals supplies come from local and preferentially organic and family farm sources.


A second area where States can play a decisive role is in the strict monitoring of labor conditions to ensure both that the bar on basic acceptable labor standards keeps moving upwards that the social component of sustainable certification labels is adhered to.


Are pre-conditions, such as wealth, education, ethical awareness and concern, cultural norms or government support, necessary for establishing fair trade in low and middle income countries?


In Brazil, there is a substantial market for the types of products with which fair trade is associated, evident both in the organic and sustainable products in the gondolas of supermarkets and the existence of specialized shops for these products. Some fair trade products, particularly coffee and orange juice, find spaces here. For these markets to exist and grow, however, there must be a movement and organizations which continually make FT an issue. Europe is a great example here with the promotion of fair trade weeks and fair trade towns. In Brazil, as we have seen, a more encompassing notion of sustainability is currently dominant and the values associated with FT are being channeled in this direction. In addition, the focus is increasingly less on niche markets and more on public procurement. This again has weakened the specific focus on FT.


Consumers in low and middle income countries have historically been excluded from purchasing items in fair trade markets due to the prohibitive cost of these items.  Are lower cost fair trade products a possibility, and if so, who should bear the extra cost of fair trade products if not the consumer?


For most FT products – coffee, tea, chocolate etc – the on-farm costs are, if not negligible, a very minor component of the total costs of a product in the supermarket gondola. The difference in price between an FT and a conventional product is largely appropriated by the supermarket which captures the “consumer value” of the product, with only a tiny proportion of the final price being related to farmer remuneration. This is not to say that the difference to the farmer is unimportant, although very often the proportion of production which he/she manages to sell as a FT product is very small. Another source of high costs, of course, is the long distances between producer and consumer which would be greatly reduced in the context of the domestic market. I don´t think the key question is that of the effect of higher farmer remuneration of final prices, but that the FT concept is related to a North/South vision as one of trade injustice and the need for redistribution, which is now undergoing revision in the light of the economic growth in the South. A similar tendency can be noted in the “North” where the notion of local supply systems is becoming the predominant focus.


In general, do you think the fair trade movement will be able to influence the mainstream market system or do you instead foresee fair trade being transformed by the mainstream market structure?


I think the FT has already influenced mainstream markets as evidenced in the proliferation of Sustainable Roundtables to define the application of sustainable criteria to all the major commodities. The same actors involved in FT have led the initiatives to create these Roundtables. The full range of FT principles is clearly not taken on board by these Roundtables but important components of social and redistributive justice are included, although they are the subject of continuous contention and the gap between principles and implementation can be yawning. The most important development to my mind in recent years has been the migration of the values associated with niche, special quality, markets, such as FT, to the major commodities. That there is a permanent risk of dilution as these values migrate from niches to the mainstream, there is no doubt, but that is the nature of the game. There is no definitive resolution of this tension, but only a permanent struggle over the values which should regulate our economic relations.



Joanna Mackenzie is a Registered Dietitian and Research Assistant for the Global Food Ethics Project at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.  She is also working towards obtaining an MSPH in Health Education and Communication from the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She received a B.S. in Nutrition Science from Russell Sage College in 2010.  Prior to coming to Hopkins, Joanna was a Public Health Nutritionist for the New York State Child and Adult Care Food Program. Previous work included using nutrition interventions to enhance the quality of life of HIV/AIDS populations in upstate New York.

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