“Fair Trade is a means to develop producers’ independence. Members maintain long-term relationships based on solidarity, trust, and mutual respect, so that producers can improve their skills and their access to markets. Members help producers to build capacity through proactive communication, financial and technical assistance, market information, and dialogue. They seek to share lessons learned, to spread best practices, and to strengthen the connections between communities, including among producer groups.”
–Fair Trade Federation
It’s a common misconception that fair trade is simply the act of paying a decent price for a product; nothing more than a producer being able to walk away having made $2.20 for a pound of coffee instead of $1.00. This is an incomplete picture, and one that mis-characterizes the true nature of the authentic fair trade movement. A fair price is a significant part of the equation, but it is not everything, and it is not nearly enough. There is much more happening on the ground at the producer level, a key example of which is the building of producer capacity.
Fair trade was developed to give marginalized farmers and artisans market access, and therefore literally put more dollars in their pockets. However, this alternative manner of trade is meant to be mutually beneficial. Consumers pay a higher price; producers provide a quality product. But producers must have the know-how and means to do so. They must have the organizational ability, infrastructure, capital, and training tools necessary to keep building upon and improving their means of production, in order to ensure their long-term viability in the market. This is what we call capacity.
Capacity-building comes in many forms: pre-harvest finance, technical assistance, market research, loans for purchasing new equipment, and quality control training, to name a few. Each manner of capacity-building is made possible through long-term committed partnerships across national borders, and is meant to increase producer autonomy at the grassroots level – at the very beginning of the supply chain. We see examples of this with producer groups world-wide, such as this one from Equal Exchange cacao partner, Oro Verde Cooperative, of Peru:
“Oro Verde is currently working hard to identify high quality, productive and disease-resistant cacao trees to build up an elite tree program allowing them to provide their farmers with improved varieties for the future. This includes a reforestation project that involves planting two million trees to help the co-op achieve a carbon footprint of zero.”
Helping build capacity is not charity, but rather a way to foster independence and increase producer control over the very supply chains on which they rely for survival. It’s the sharing of tools and knowledge that will bring more economic activity to those who have been marginalized by conventional trade. It is insurance against future challenges, and is what enables producers to hold their own in a system rigged against them. Capacity-building is a fundamental pillar of the fair trade model, without which you don’t have genuine fair trade.
Rachel Dana, is a worker-owner at Equal Exchange. After graduating from Earlham College in Indiana, Rachel spent some time in Mexico. She is now based in Cleveland, Ohio with another worker-owner and several part time staffers who run the Northeast Ohio DSD program. Cleveland is also home to one of the exclusive Equal Exchange Espresso Bars, a 100% fair trade coffee cafe, dedicated to the principles of fair trade.
check out EqualExchange.coop