Managing mainstreaming

Fair Trade Organisations (FTOs) need support from the Fair Trade authorities to level the playing field on which they compete or face marginalisation, according to a report published recently by the University of York. 

Where now for Fair Trade? looks at the history of Fair Trade over the past 20 years and finds a mixed picture. Its authors, Bob Doherty of the University of York, Iain Davies of the University of Bath and Sophi Tranchell, Managing Director of Divine Chocolate, agree that the mainstreaming of Fair Trade through manufacturers and retailers such as Nestle and the big UK supermarkets has delivered considerable gains for the Fair Trade movement, but cite evidence showing that, as the movement has moved into the mainstream, many of its founding principles have been diluted.

The UK and Italy offer an interesting case history. The countries have similar populations, broadly similar patterns of wealth distribution and started on the journey towards Fair Trade at roughly the same time and in the same way. However, by the 1990s the UK had started to diverge towards a mainstreaming model of Fair Trade while Italy continued with the original 'alternative' model. The result is that Italian sales of fairly traded goods currently stand around 100 million while in the UK they have risen to nearly 1,500 billion.

That's impressive progress but the report warns that 'uncritical engagement with mainstream business risks co-optation, dilution and reputational damage to the Fair Trade movement.'

Looking at the eight foundational principles of Fair Trade, the authors show that mainstreaming has led to significant or partial erosion of standards in at least five (and possibly six) cases. Only in paying the Fair Trade minimum price and in promoting consumer education can mainstreaming to be said to have had no detrimental effect.

To counteract the downside of mainstreaming, the authors propose three measures:

    • Manufacturers and retailers should provide consumers with better information about each certified product at point of sale. (The GeoFairTrade project is a step in this direction.)


    • The Fair Trade authorities should introduce a stronger Fair Trade supply agreement to enhance the value of Fair Trade (in terms of, e.g., pre-financing and long-term contracts) and ensure a stronger commitment to Fair Trade principles from mainstream actors.


  • Fairtrade International should develop international commodity strategies to identify countries, producers and interventions needed to scale up the impact of Fair Trade.

'In counteracting this dilution [of standards], empowering producers and the more committed FTOs is essential', argue the authors. 'FTOs motivations to pursue a transformative message in the mainstream and their capability to provide effective support to farmers is clearly still strong [and] social movement activity by Fairtrade Towns and Universities has the ability to create a strong alternative high street in which a limited number of FTOs could maintain their independence.'

The report is available from Taylor & Francis Online for £23.