During a trip to England last fall, I couldn’t help but notice the prized shelf space occupied by fair trade products throughout The Cooperative Group chain of food stores. Every single one, even the smaller stores proudly displayed these products. Tea and coffee, chocolate, wine, fruits and a wide range of products are available and attainable in the “Fair Trade” section of these stores. The Cooperative Group is the uncontested British leader in the distribution of fair trade products and is also the foremost defender and promoter of fair trade commerce. In fact, in 2003 it received an award from Worldaware Business Awards for its infallible commitment over the decades.
Should we be surprised that a cooperative group is so strongly committed to promoting fair trade? Of course not! Quite the contrary, we should be surprised that a cooperative can remain insensitive to such a remarkable chain of commonality shown by this type of commerce. In fact, another large cooperative network, this one from Switzerland, is the number one leader in the world in terms of distributing fair trade products. And those who benefit most from its endeavours are cooperatives from down South.
Let’s not forget that the basic notion of fair trade is to ensure decent wages for farmers in developing countries – a perfectly legitimate reason shared by an increasing number of farmers throughout the world. In 1964, during the first United Nations conference on trade and development, farmers from the South demanded trade access rather than humanitarian aid. They clamoured for “Trade, not aid!” Hence, the idea of fair trade takes root: to determine a product’s selling price based on its actual cost of production and the cost of ensuring a decent living for the producers’ families, a standard of living that respects basic human dignity. As a proof of good faith, producers gathered together and formed cooperatives to make certain the community would benefit from any positive repercussions and they made a commitment to sustainable agriculture. Fair trade was born.
A few naysayers tried to stop the initiative by asserting that prices were established based on the market’s supply and demand. But, gosh darn it, when market access is nonexistent, why should its rules apply? While others said that even if this system worked in the short term, the approach could not be sustained since it would keep farmers from reacting to consumer signals and that in the long term overproduction would become a problem, prices would drop, and so on and so on. However, this kind of scenario is usually triggered in the event of ‘substitute products’, a term oft used by economists that refers to products commonly interchanged by consumers, without distinction. But this is not the case. Fair trade products are distinct because people buy them for their story and their history. In fact, supporters of fair trade believe this type of commerce would be ideal as part of the vision of the World Trade Organization since it is not the result of governmental protectionist policies, but is rather a product of free choice on the part of consumers seeking ethical consumption practices.
As I mentioned, not surprising then that Northern cooperatives haven’t been swayed by fair trade. Who better than the head of a cooperative from here to appreciate the merits of cooperation abroad, its social project, its ethical approach, its human dimension? When one cooperative deals with another it’s comparable to speaking the same language, sharing similar values. It’s as if we were already acquainted! All of those who’ve had the opportunity, through SOCODEVI or otherwise, to visit cooperatives in the South will agree: when one cooperative deals with another cooperative, there is a common point of reference, a very efficient and economically sound starting point.
Oh, about C2C! Don’t go searching textbooks to find it, I just made it up. It means inter-cooperation. It’s a take on the expression B2B (business to business), often used to refer to communications between businesses – it sounds so serious. I thought we could also give our version of communications a name and C2C (cooperative to cooperative) seems appropriate. Easy to use and highly versatile, drop it in any conversation, for example “Our new C2C business strategy is a resounding success!” Notice your bank manager’s smile stretch a little wider – especially if it’s a credit union!