California is at the leading edge of demographic change in the United States, as the state’s cities, suburbs, and rural towns are inhabited by millions of foreign-born, and their children, who now account for half of California’s population. Many of these groups have been around for generations and have influenced California’s culture—from its arts and politics to its customs and cuisine. Yet, these same groups are often scapegoated when it comes to the state’s sluggish economy, overburdened hospitals, or underperforming schools. The numbers, however, do not tell the full story of how these Californians are shaping the physical and cultural landscape of the state.

Bringing Fair Trade Home

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California is at the leading edge of demographic change in the United States, as the state’s cities, suburbs, and rural towns are inhabited by millions of foreign-born, and their children, who now account for half of California’s population. Many of these groups have been around for generations and have influenced California’s culture—from its arts and politics to its customs and cuisine. Yet, these same groups are often scapegoated when it comes to the state’s sluggish economy, overburdened hospitals, or underperforming schools. The numbers, however, do not tell the full story of how these Californians are shaping the physical and cultural landscape of the state.

In 2008 a group of people advocating for such issues incorporated the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA) as a membership organization that would lead this movement. Two key structures were set up right away.

First, members approved the principles of domestic fair trade, based on principles of international fair trade, and addressed issues such as rights of workers, support of family-scale farming, long-term relationships, transparency and accountability throughout the supply chain, rights of indigenous people, and shared risk. These principles are the foundation for the work of the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA).

DFTA

Second, members organized themselves into five stakeholder groups:

1. Farmers and their organizations

2. Farmworkers and their organizations

3. Marketers, processors and manufacturers,

4. Retailers

5. Civil society and NGOs.

Each stakeholder group elects two board members, who represent member organizations, and an additional seat is reserved as an at-large position. This structure is unique for a coalition in terms of bringing a diverse group of organizations together with an equal voice and mutual respect. The change in power dynamic we wish to see enforced in agriculture and trade is already realized within our own organizational structure.

The DFTA currently has 36 members including the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS). A sampling of the diversity found among members includes:
Bluff Country Coo-op in Winona, Minnesota—in addition to their purchasing policies that pro-actively support local farmers, Bluff Country was the first retailer to be certified to the Agricultural Justice Project’s domestic fair trade standards.
Co-operative Fund of New England—a community development financial institution that provides socially responsible investment opportunities to investors and loans to cooperatives, community nonprofits, and worker-owned businesses.
Equal Exchange—a pioneer of fair trade in the U.S. starting with coffee and later chocolate, tea, and bananas. Equal Exchange was also a founding member of DFTA, bringing to the table their experience in developing domestic supply chains for fruit and nuts.
Farmworker Association of Florida—provides pesticide education and other health and education services for farmworkers in Florida.
Food Chain Workers Alliance—a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food.
Midwest Organic Services Association—an organic and social justice certifier based in Wisconsin.
National Cooperative Grocers Association—a national organization providing services to strengthen individual cooperative retail stores.
Swanton Berry Farm—an organic farm in California employing a union labor force and supplying berries and other produce wholesale and direct to consumers.
Willamette Seed and Grain—a group of family grain farmers working to strengthen a regional food system in the Willamette Valley of Oregon while keeping small-scale farms sustainable.

As the movement has grown, so have market claims related to fair trade and social justice. This is no surprise and since its inception, DFTA has understood the need to play a watchdog role. For the past several years we have been developing criteria that can be used to evaluate fair trade labels and standards as well as related claims made by companies. We are currently conducting preliminary evaluations of four programs and soon you will be able to go to our website and find out which certifications and labels are strong and legitimate.

We will also evaluate claims made by companies. For example, if you purchase a product that claims to be, “supporting family farmers in Illinois” or “treating workers fairly” you will be able to come to us to determine the legitimacy and strength of the claim.

One of our goals is to ensure the legitimacy of claims. It is not acceptable for a program or company to make a false or misleading claim in order to benefit from a market advantage; learning the lingo, but not employing fair practices. At the same time there are a number of businesses that are mission-driven and legitimate in addition to strong third-party verification programs. An equally important goal is to promote those that do meet our rigorous criteria and can model a new way of conducting business.

As we work to identify the programs and companies that meet the high bar, the next challenge is to contribute to a unified message in the marketplace. While most people recognize the basic idea of “fair trade” whether it is in the form of coffee certified under the Institute for Marketecology's (IMO's) Fair for Life program, sugar certified to Fairtrade International standards, or crafts sold by a Fair Trade Federation member, “domestic fair trade” as a marketing term is not as simple. Although it adequately describes our movement here in the U.S. and Canada, when placed in the context of the global movement for fair trade, it runs into obstacles.

Part of the reason is that farmers and workers in the U.S. and Canada are not the only ones who have started “domestic fair trade” movements in the global north. France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, for example, have similar movements. Therefore it may be possible to include olive oil from Spain or beeswax from Australia in a product sold in the U.S. “Domestic” certainly does not apply to something produced in Spain and sold in North America.

Yet those who understand the history of fair trade know that it was originally used specifically by and for small producers in the global south. To simply drop the word “domestic” may be as misleading or counterproductive as keeping it if it causes confusion or discomfort. As fair trade grows internationally, including domestic movements, we face the challenge of collectively working for change while valuing diversity and maintaining accuracy and transparency in all areas. As with any growing movement, this is an exciting time.

Fair trade itself is at a crossroads as we seek consensus on a distinction between true fair trade and something perhaps better than business as usual but less than true fair trade. Our goal and vision is to transform agriculture and trade, and to make justice, dignity, health, and sustainability the norm, not the exception. To do so requires holding a high bar and a clear message. And it requires synergy with others working toward similar goals.

That is why the DFTA is excited to be a co-organizer of a North America Fair Trade Stakeholder Council and Summit this spring. Along with Fair World Project and Fair Trade Resources Network, we have gathered 50 representatives of farmers, workers, artisans, advocates, and businesses committed to strengthening fair trade in North America so that we can have a significant impact on trade and agriculture around the world. Together we are working through issues like: what fair trade is, what it should be at its best, how to hold all players accountable, and how to create a clear and meaningful message. We are excited to be part of this process and look forward to both sharing our progress and hearing feedback from all stakeholders. You can check for updates on our website.

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Kerstin Lindgren is the executive director of the Domestic Fair Trade Association and in this role is responsible for coordinating domestic fair trade evaluation program, overseeing daily operations, and strategic planning for the organization. Prior to coming to DFTA, Kerstin worked with several food-related businesses and non-profit organizations in research and management roles. Kerstin has an M.S. in Agriculture, Food, and the Environment and an M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, both from Tufts University.
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