By Esther Vivas
Faced with this question, we could affirm that the growing presence of fair trade products on the shelves of supermarkets and department stores is a positive dynamic that allows easy access to these products and a greater number of sales. But is fair trade limited to just a trade issue?
Fair trade in the supermarket? Faced with this question, we could affirm that the growing presence of fair trade products on the shelves of supermarkets and department stores is a positive dynamic that allows easy access to these products and a greater number of sales. But is fair trade limited to just a trade issue? What kind of fair trade can companies carry out with a dubious track record regarding labor, environmental and social rights? Fair trade in the supermarket is fair trade?
Given the growing interest in fair trade by supermarkets and large stores such as Carrefour, El Corte Inglés, Mercadona, Alcampo, Eroski ... we should ask ourselves what is behind this commercial strategy and its declarations of good intentions.
We will all agree that in order to change the unjust rules of the market it is essential to carry out a task of sensitization and social awareness about what are the causes and consequences of the current commercial and economic model. But are large commercial distribution companies capable of carrying out this awareness-raising task? Are the same people who benefit from capitalist globalization capable of fighting against it?
In order to answer the questions asked above, I would like to point out four considerations.
First: Fair trade does not mean selling more. Fair trade aims to change the unjust rules of international trade and subject trade to the needs of the people and oppressed sectors. Consequently, selling more is not a final objective in itself but a means of raising awareness and supporting producers in the South in solidarity in a common struggle for a political and economic system in solidarity and respectful of the environment and people.
Selling more through large stores will never allow us to modify the unfair rules of the commercial system since they are the first interested in maintaining an unfair commercial model that brings them significant economic benefits.
Secondly: fair trade is not a list of criteria. We cannot limit fair trade to a series of criteria applied to production at source. Fair trade is something much more complex than a product produced based on criteria of social and environmental justice, fair trade is a commercial process that goes from the producer to the final consumer, taking into account a whole series of actors who participate in this commercial chain (importer, processor, distributor ...). We cannot subject the producer from the South to the fulfillment of a series of criteria in production (payment of a living wage, democratic organization, gender policies, regarding the environment) and not apply these same to the rest of the actors that participate in this chain criteria.
If we applied the fair trade criteria to supermarkets and department stores that currently sell fair trade products, they would not meet any of these criteria.
Third: Fair trade does not just mean a business relationship with the producer. We cannot limit fair trade to a mere North-South money transfer. We must transcend this welfare vision for a perspective of internationalist solidarity between producer and consumer, in struggle against the capitalist globalization model.
Supermarkets subdue and exploit the small producer and farmer with the aim of getting cheaper and cheaper products, even paying below cost price. Not in vain the agricultural income decreases year after year. Peasants receive less and less money for their production and consumers increasingly pay more for these products. Who benefits?
In fourth place: Fair trade is not just North-South. Justice in commercial practices must not only be limited to trade between countries of the North and South, we must demand commercial justice both at the international, state and local levels and therefore also demand fair trade North-North and South-South . A state and local fair trade implies putting the emphasis on the commercialization of local and proximity products made by actors of the solidarity economy and defending the right of the peoples to food sovereignty.
Large distribution chains promote offshoring agriculture and production to get products as cheap as possible, made in countries of the South violating environmental and labor rights, and then sell them as expensive as they can. These are responsible for the consumption of “traveling” food that travels thousands of kilometers before reaching our tables: grapes from Chile, pears from South Africa, beef from Argentina… they are common products on the shelves of supermarkets. They do not defend food sovereignty but free trade and through their practices end local production and commerce.
Based on these considerations, what is the point of supermarkets and department stores selling fair trade products?
Fair trade is used by supermarkets and department stores as a corporate marketing and image washing tool. By selling a tiny part of their fair trade products they intend to justify a totally unfair commercial practice: precarious workforce, subjugation of the small farmer, exploitation of the environment, promotion of an unsustainable consumption model, unfair competition with local commerce, etc.
Faced with the question of whether there are good and bad supermarkets, it is important to point out that the production and marketing model of all of them is based on a market logic that puts profit maximization before respect for social and environmental rights. Consequently, the logic of operation of all of them is the same although there are some that have a better image washing strategy than others.
Given this scenario, it is essential to advocate for fair trade that refuses to be a business marketing instrument at the service of multinationals and large stores. A transformative and alternative fair trade is necessary that takes into account all the actors in the commercial chain, that works for a global North-South, North-North and South-South perspective and that defends the right of peoples to food sovereignty .
A stamp to sell more?
Some fair trade organizations in the Spanish State have opted to promote a fair trade seal, the FLO seal, as a strategy to expand the distribution and sale market. With a seal that establishes what is and what is not fair trade, the actor that until now carried out a product guarantee work, the fair trade store, becomes expendable. Certification is only useful for large distribution chains who need the seal to justify the "justice" at the origin of the products they sell. The seal reduces the complexity of fair trade to the product, without taking into account the other actors that participate in the commercial chain. Multinationals such as Nestlé, Mc Donald, Starbucks ... have started to release their own fair trade products and brands with the FLO seal. Linking these companies to fair trade thanks to one of their products is causing a loss of credibility and clarity of the message that no planned expansion of the fair trade market can compensate.
* Esther Vivas, from the Xarxa de Consum Solidari. Together with Xavier Montagut, he has coordinated the books "Where is fair trade going?" and "Supermarkets, no thanks."