Is Fairtrade Still Relevant?

We sit down with the Executive Director of Fairtrade Canada to find out if Fairtrade is still relevant today!

Almost 7,000 products from coffee to flowers are Fairtrade certified in Canada.

Millions of farmers and workers in the Global South work hard to provide the things we depend on every day – the coffee in our mugs, the bananas in our breakfast, the tea at our break, the chocolate pick-me-up snack.

So is Fairtrade still relevant, here’s what Julie Francoeur has to say.

You have extensive and diverse experience with Fairtrade international, what brought you to Fairtrade Canada?

After more than 10 years living abroad:
2 in Bolivia working on a Canadian government funded environmental project

Photo: Julie Francoeur

3 years in Saint-Lucia in charge of Fairtrade International’s producers’ services (training, capacity building, institutional relationships with governments, etc) in the Caribbean covering multiple countries and supply chains with more than 15 000 small farmers and workers

5 years based in Argentina (as regional manager for field operations in the southern cone and the Caribbean, and then working to build the market within Argentina for Fairtrade products)

Photo: Julie Francoeur

My husband and I started feeling the calling to come back to Canada, be closer to our families and allow our son to grow up around his grandparents.

In the transition between Argentina and Canada, I worked as a Senior Consultant on sustainability in supply chains for various organizations and companies. As Fairtrade Canada started looking for its new Executive Director, it looked like the perfect challenge for me.

Fairtrade in Canada is just at the tipping point of scaling up and really creating massive impact for the farmers and workers who grow our coffee, our bananas or the workers making our clothes. It’s been a privilege to be trusted on leading this next phase.

What’s the relation between buying local and buying fair trade?

We believe strongly in the natural affinity between local, organic and Fairtrade. They all stem from taking a conscious decision as a person or as a company to buy ethically and to care for the impact of our choices. Local organic apples and Fairtrade organic bananas from Ecuador belong in that same space of food traceability and sustainable choices.

Most of the products that we certify do not grow in Canada; coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, mangoes, cotton, etc. Your jeans could be locally made with Canadian hemp and your sneakers made in a Fairtrade certified factory in Pakistan from Fairtrade rubber and Fairtrade cotton.

Sometimes, the relationship between local and Fairtrade is found in the same product. A Fairtrade chocolate made by a local Ottawa-based worker coop. Fairtrade coffee from your local town’s roaster.

What is the difference between a Fair Trade member and Fair Trade certification?

A Fair Trade Member could refer to a member of the Fair Trade Federation or of the World Fair Trade Organization, 2 organizations that work on a membership base. Their members are normally companies that adhere to a code of conduct and self-assess their performance.

Fairtrade certification refers to a third-party audit system that works with the Fairtrade Producer Standards (for farmers organizations, factories, and plantations) and Fairtrade Trader Standards (for all companies within the supply chain: exporter, importer, trader, brands). FLOCERT, our independent certification company audits every actor in the chain against a rigorous set of environmental, social and economic standards. We as Fairtrade Canada are responsible for the audits in Canada. The Fairtrade certification then is reflected on a final product by the Fairtrade Mark.

There are so many considerations for the modern consumer. What do you look for as a consumer when you are trying to purchase products responsibly?

As you say, there are many considerations and our lives are full of choices, which can easily be overwhelming. For food, I look for trusted organizations and certifications. I buy my organic vegetables and fruits through a local organic farm. I limit my meat consumption and look for the sustainable option. I buy Fairtrade whenever possible. I love finding great companies that make your life easier but also greener. Like shops that will refill your eco-detergents, shampoos or handsoap.

For many things such as furniture, apparel, and home goods, I try to find great thrift pieces first. When I buy new, I research the companies and find trusted sources of advice. Often it starts by buying less and more durable products. Or not at all.

Is there a correlation between fair trade and sustainability?

Yes! Fairtrade has always worked with all 3 pillars of sustainability even before the word sustainability became as used as it is today. It works on the environmental side (limiting agrochemicals and damaging pollutants, looking after water use and contamination, protecting soils and biodiversity, etc). It works on the social side (working on empowerment, protection of children and vulnerable adults, workers rights, non-discrimination, democracy, etc). And in a unique manner it works on the Economic side (ensuring sustainable pricing, enabling fair contracts, pre-financing, traceable payments, impact investment through the Fairtrade premium, enabling long-term economic partnerships between business partners).

What is your perspective of the social and environmental impacts of the traditional supply chain and how do fair trade practices begin to address these issues?

Traditional supply chains are complex and often opaque. They also have tremendous social and environmental impacts all the way along the chain. Let’s take the example of coffee: farmers today are paid the same price (as adjusted per inflation) than they were 30 years ago for one pound of coffee. This not only maintains systemic poverty in many coffee producing regions but it also creates multiple social problems. If you cannot make a living from your crop, you might not be able to buy school books for your children. Your children might stop going to school early to work on the farm as you cannot afford to pay a worker.

By enabling fair prices, by enabling the coffee cooperatives to deliver services to its farmer members and by working with our field teams on building capacity within the community to strengthen the access to education, we begin to change the dynamics of that supply chain. Cooperatives receive a Fairtrade premium, an extra amount on top of an assured Fairtrade price. The members decide democratically how they will use the funds. We are accompanying them in driving the highest impact for their community through their investments. More and more have chosen to invest in adaptation to climate change. Implementing better ways to farm, using water more sustainably, diversifying their income.

Is Fairtrade still relevant?

By working with all the actors along the supply chain, we start to fundamentally change the way trade works. We build partnerships that go beyond the purchase and sale of a good. Supply chains are weak but human chains are strong.

Who is certifying and supervising fair trade practices?

In all the Global South, the certification is done by FLOCERT, our ISO 17065 accredited certifier. In Canada, our Fairtrade Canada certification team audits and certifies Canadian importers and brands.

We also have large teams in Asia, Africa, Middle East and Latin America working with producers, workers, factories to implement fairtrade practices and strengthen their organizations throughout the year.

How much of the cost difference between fair trade and non-fair trade products actually end up in the pockets of the farmers?

We audit the payments made to the coops and the payments made to the farmers to ensure the right prices have been paid. The portion of the final price to the consumer that goes back to the farmers will vary per product. On bananas, farmers on average receive 50% more when they sell as Fairtrade than when they sell conventionally. Many Fairtrade products are not more expensive than an equivalent non-Fairtrade products, such as high-quality coffee or a bar of great chocolate. By limiting the amount of intermediaries in the supply chain we can ensure that a higher chunk of the price paid by the consumer goes back to the producers.

Is achieving fair trade certification financially feasible for poor farmers? And how are farmers that are unable to afford fair trade certification affected?

This is why we work with organizations of small farmers (cooperatives, associations, federations, etc.). Not only they can be better empowered and reach critical mass, build efficiencies and negotiate better together, but it also makes certification feasible. We offer financial assistance to small farmer organizations that cannot afford to pay for the certification. We also work with the farmers to ensure Fairtrade is the right tool for them and that the cost/benefit works out in their favor. We also work very hard in Canada to build awareness and demand for Fairtrade certified products so that the benefits and impact can far outweigh the cost.

In most cases, the cost isn’t so much about the certification itself, it’s a time and human resource investment in building the proper capacity within a cooperative so they can really deliver on environmental and social protection for example. This is why we build partnerships with other NGOs, with Social and micro-finance institutions and the likes.

Fairtrade means fair pay and safe working conditions

How can Canadian consumers support Fairtrade this month? 

During Fairtrade Month, retailers will be showcasing to shoppers the wide variety of Fairtrade products that they have in store.

When you shop at these retailers, you are supporting all the people involved that buy their finished goods (like bananas), or raw goods (like cocoa beans) from Fairtrade farms in the Global South. Most importantly, when you choose Fairtrade, you empower the hardworking farmers and worker communities to grow, develop and sustain future production.

As a consumer, check out our list of retailers who are participating in Fairtrade Month so you can purchase Fairtrade products in your area. Look for signage in-store, Fairtrade products on promotion, and even samples from a demonstration table.

Thank you to Julie for her time, there is no perfect system in place when it comes to workers rights, but we firmly believe that since many of us consume coffee, chocolate, and bananas on a daily basis, we may think that by simply purchasing these goods, the farmers and workers who produce them will benefit. But unless those goods are sustainably sourced and traded under terms like with Fairtrade, they often don’t. Global supply chains and a legacy of trade exploitation often squeeze out the most vulnerable and keep the poorest link in that chain from thriving – the farmers themselves.

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