When Michael Kalmanovitch opened Earth’s General Store in 1991, fair trade was already a priority. But he was in the minority—while he offered fair-trade products and partnered with social-justice organizations and local businesses to promote the concept, Fairtrade Canada, the country’s certifying body for fair-trade products, wasn’t established for another six years. At the time, Kalmanovitch says, discussions about fair trade largely belonged in the realm of counter culture.
“Fair trade is near and dear to my heart,” Kalmanovitch says. “It doesn’t make any sense not to do it. We’re talking about respect. You like to be paid and respected for your work. You don’t like people taking advantage of you, and you work so hard only to find out that you’re making less money than it costs to live.
“That’s what is happening with the global commodity market, and that’s not very respectful.”
More than 20 years later, multinational corporations like Starbucks now promote their own fair-trade options. Among other sustainability initiatives, the concept of fair trade has become mainstream. And as consumers demand transparent, ethical business practices, companies are marketing not just their products, but their adherence to good environmental and labour standards.
Edmonton is now also embracing the concept of fair trade as a city, after passing Fairtrade Canada’s certification process to be named a Fair Trade Town. It’s the third major city in the country to receive the title, after Toronto and Vancouver, and the nation’s 17th Fair Trade Town overall, with smaller communities holding most of the titles. While businesses such as Earth’s General Store had been selling Fairtrade-certified products for years, earning the official title from Fairtrade Canada was a long and involved process of its own.
Volunteers built the campaign from the ground up, beginning by raising awareness through presentations to local schools, churches and community groups. Soon they were sending information and petitions to City Council members demonstrating local support for the initiative. And on July 3 City Council endorsed Edmonton’s bid to become a Fair Trade Town, cementing Fairtrade Canada’s final piece of criteria—which also includes confirming at least two Fairtrade-certified products are available in more than 40 restaurants and 80 stores and providing proof of community support and public awareness.
Fairtrade-certified products, identifiable by a blue and green logo, offer a guarantee that the entire production process meets a minimum standard in labour and sustainability practices. Both producers and companies purchasing products are also subject to audits checking that these standards are being maintained.
Valantina Amalraj, a volunteer from the advocacy organization Make Poverty History, helped mobilize support for Edmonton’s Fair Trade Town certification. As the initiative gained momentum, local chapters of Engineers Without Borders and World University Service of Canada also got involved to help the cause.
“This is a way for consumers to let businesses and governments know that Canadians and consumers care about trade being fair, so governments will rethink how they engage with trade discussions,” Amalraj says. “The short-term goal is to raise awareness of the [Fairtrade] logo, but the ultimate goal is about challenging global trade.”
Agricultural producers in developing nations are often particularly affected by the unbalanced world trade system. Because farmers in North America and Europe usually receive subsidies from the government to protect their income, they can sell their products at an artificially low rate, making it difficult for farmers in countries without subsidies to compete. Globalization also plays a role, as corporations outsource labour to other countries that may not enforce adequate labour or wage standards.
“There’s been a general race to the bottom with a lot of countries,” Amalraj explains. “To attract foreign investment, countries have been forced to lower their standards.”
Greg Anderson is an associate professor who studies international political economy in the department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. He says agriculture’s vital role in development makes its suppression especially concerning.
“Agriculture in North America was a major stepping stone to industrialization. And in a sense, agricultural subsidies here now are short-circuiting some developing countries’ ability to get on that same path to a commercial sector.”
But the interconnected nature of the current world-trade system also provides the tools to scrutinize corporations’ actions. If they’re caught profiting from shoddy labour standards or environmental degradation, the consequences can be dire.
“Globalization has been bad news, but it’s been good, because if something happens, we know about it,” Anderson says. “As consumers, we’re outraged, and we’ll think twice about buying things if they are not produced in an ethical or sustainable way. Companies have gotten in big trouble for these sorts of things.
“Consumers will take their dollars elsewhere.”
The push to make Edmonton a Fair Trade Town is focused on this sense of consumer awareness and watchfulness. While it might be criticized as an empty title with little action to back it up, Amalraj says simply bringing knowledge of these issues to a wider audience can have a significant impact.
“Fair trade is something that is very well researched, the system is well set up and it has achieved a lot of credibility,” she says. “The only thing that’s missing is reaching consumer awareness. That’s the next step.”
While Kalmanovitch is a firm supporter of fair trade, he also worries about whether certifying organizations like Fairtrade Canada are effective enough. Ultimately, he believes the organization’s benefits outweigh any drawbacks. But as promoting sustainability becomes increasingly mainstream, fair trade and environmental certification and labelling systems have proliferated, and sometimes even compete with each other. Kalmanovitch says the Fairtrade logo is a good signal for consumers, but they should be doing their own research too.
“If [consumers] are reading the ingredients or researching the company, they might decide they don’t like it. Because we have these labels, it kind of disempowers people to some degree.”
Fairtrade certification has also drawn criticism for not being impactful enough, with not enough of consumers’ money actually reaching producers. Anderson also notes the fair-trade system itself, while it addresses some of the problems in the current world commodity market, might have some economic drawbacks.
“If a multinational corporation is paying coffee growers in a developing country a higher wage to produce coffee there, what about other local producers?
“From an economist’s point of view, they would look at that as a distortion of the labour market. Everyone wants to work for the multinational when it shows up because they tend to pay slightly higher wages. So does it drive the small, local craft out of business?”
Social sustainability isn’t yet a priority for everyone, but it’s no longer a fringe cause. The days of buying groceries, or even just a cup of coffee, without a single thought about their origins, are dwindling. In Edmonton, there are still active efforts to raise more awareness—while the city’s Fair Trade certification winds down, a similar initiative to establish the University of Alberta as a Fair Trade Campus is also underway. The sense of the importance of awareness only continues to grow.
Amalraj says this awareness is a catalyst for more effective conversations—not just in terms of how developed nations can come to the aid of developing countries, but how our everyday actions contribute to inequality.
“I like that it changes the conversation from charity to justice,” she says. “Fair trade puts the responsibility back on the person to say, ‘How am I responsible for the state of the world?’ Even just stepping away from the bigger conversations of capitalism or colonialism, what am I doing today that propagates the status quo?”