UK ‘Fairtrade’ Universities miss the point: Of both fair trade alternatives and the real function of universities

Fairtrade Universities focus too much on consumption and not enough on what universities are for: ideas.

Alastair Michael Smith
28 August 2015

Following the success of Fairtrade Towns in the UK (where communities can be accredited for supporting consumption of Fairtrade goods), the Fairtrade Foundation launched certification schemes for schools, and colleges and universities. This initiative has been hugely successful: there are over 4,000 schools and well over 160 universities and colleges registered. Moreover, Wales and Scotland have gone further to work for independent recognition as Fair Trade Nations on the back of these various social certifications, and the phenomena has spread internationally to Europe and beyond.

There is no doubt that these certification programs have done important work to draw attention to the continuing issues of international trade justice: which, while previously marginalised as a concern of the developing world, has recently been highlighted in the fallout over proposals for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – TTIP. However, there are now important questions to be asked in UK Further and Higher Education, as well as by members of the fair trade movement, about the focus of the Fairtrade Colleges and Universities programme. Two key questions in particular are: how should we define what we accept as fair trade activity, and on what basis should an institution concerned with research and/or teaching be acknowledged as making a notable contribution to the fair trade movement?

The History of the Fairtrade Foundation and Fairtrade Schools/Universities

The UK’s Fairtrade Foundation emerged as a radical organisation offering independent certification for products originating with marginalised developing world farmers. In contrast to the distorted nature of international commodity trading, the Fairtrade Mark guaranteed UK consumers that goods were commercialised under conditions aimed to return as much benefit to the least advantaged in the supply chain. However, soon after its creation, the Fairtrade Foundation merged with similar certifiers in other countries in Europe, North America, and currently functions as the UK’s licencing body of an international network of certification: now known as Fairtrade International. In its current form, the Fairtrade Foundation is primarily responsible for 1) awarding licences to retailers and other stakeholders to apply the certification mark on their products, and 2) growing the market for Fairtrade certified products.

In the process of its transformation, many trade justice advocates have argued that the requirements set for Fairtrade certification have been weakened: as in order to encourage participation by large commercial plays, such as the supermarkets, less has been required of these actors to support certified producers. Despite this however, Fairtrade remains a positive option for consumers who wish to consider justice in their purchasing, and has been shown to be of significant benefit when deployed in the right situations.

As part of its marketing strategy, the Fairtrade Foundation adopted a proposition of Bruce Crowther (a vet and passionate trade justice advocate from Garstang, Lancashire) to develop recognition for fair trade towns: where the community undertakes particularly notable activities to promote international trade justice. However, given the function of the Fairtrade Foundation, the recognition became strongly focused around the promotion of goods with the Fairtrade mark; and the scheme for Fairtrade Schools and Universities has adopted the same.

Examining the requirements of Fairtrade Universities, these are largely focused on the consumption of Fairtrade goods. Goals require that the University or College: 1) passes a Fairtrade policy statement, incorporating the five goals and which is reviewed annually to improve and develop engagement; 2) stocks Fairtrade products including food and cotton sale in all campus shops/cafés/restaurants/bars on campus; 3) uses Fairtrade products at all meetings/events hosted by the university/college and the Student Union (or equivalent), including internal management meetings; 4) organises Fairtrade Campaigns to “increase the understanding of Fairtrade and consumption of Fairtrade products”, although there should also be “student events, campaigns and raising awareness of trade justice as well as integrating Fairtrade into subject teaching where appropriate”, and; 5) sets up a Fairtrade Steering Group to coordinate activities and certification renewal.

In many ways, the Fairtrade certification in the UK arguably fits the neoliberalisation of the university: where a focus on service, business and consumption, subordinates critical approaches to the management of knowledge generation and learning beneath the imperatives of market competition. However, for those who believe the Higher and Further Education must be much more, there are alternative roles for which institutions should celebrate their active participation in international trade justice.

Alternative Fair Trade perspectives: Fair trade universities and knowledge in Latin America

Fairtrade certification emerged from a much longer history of informal fair trade activities (uncertified but based on trust, information and critical engagement). For this reason, the wider movement for fair trade (expressed as two words, as opposed to the unified and trademarked name owned by Fairtrade International) recognises the importance of a wide range of practices to promote trade justice. For example, the World Fair Trade Organisation is as old as the Fairtrade system, but focuses on lower volume crafts rather than bulk commodities – and has been less successful in having it certification recognised by the public, largely due to adopting a less business focused approach.

Moreover, in Latin America, the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Fair Trade Small Producers (CLAC), also campaigns for the promotion of fair trade, and is arguable the original home of what subsequently became the Fairtrade certification system. However, for a long time, many of the members have been vocally dissatisfied with how Fairtrade International has developed the concept of fair trade: particularly in the transition from exclusive support for small producers to certify agricultural plantations (some argue to satisfy the demands of supermarkets), and the shift from dedicated, socially embedded supportive relationships (an emphasis on the quality of fair trade relationships), to institutionalised certification and marketing (to an emphasis on the quantity of fair trade products sold).

Setting aside the deep and complex differences of perspectives on supply chain organisation, CLAC and WFTO-Latin America developed their own “Latin American Fair Trade Towns and Villages programme”: presented recently during the last Fair Trade Towns International Conference in Bristol. According to CLAC representative, Marco Coscione, producers and artisans should be more visible in fair trade processes, and public authorities must recognize and work with them, to develop local fair trade strategies.

As a result of this difference of approach, CLAC also launched the “Latin American Universities for Fair Trade” campaign in August 2014. Here the focus of the criteria is reversed and widened to include different fair trade approaches at the local, national and international levels. Instead of prioritising the consumption of goods, the criteria focus on the creation of knowledge for trade justice by colleges and universities. Therefore, there must be at least one research project or publication per year focused on Fair Trade, the Solidarity Economy or Responsible Consumption (and so not necessarily about fair trade) and at least, one course per academic year in which these issues are addressed. Naturally, the university should also adopt a policy of ethical procurement and supply. However, in place of focusing on the consumption of one fair trade label (e.g. Fairtrade), institutions can buy directly from organizations of small producers of fair trade, or purchase goods accredited by the WFTO, Fundeppo (Small Producers’ Symbol) or any other democratically organized small producers’ organization of the local or national solidarity economy sector.

What the UK Universities can learn from the Global Fair Trade Movement

The growth of fair trade in the UK is a unique story. The Fairtrade Foundation has undoubtedly strengthened and widened the public recognition of trade justice issues through Fairtrade certification of towns, schools, colleges and universities. Having said this, where other countries have taken on the ideas and tools, many alternative models have emerged. As I have analysed elsewhere, in Australia and New Zealand for example, ‘place based fair trade certification’ is administered by an independent organisation that recognises not just Fairtrade International but other certification marks. Moreover, as noted above, the CLAC producer network has placed the emphasis on acknowledging universities that participate in the creation and teaching of knowledge for trade justice, and a more socially and environmentally embedded economy in general. Therefore, for me, this approach is much better aligned with the primary function of a university, to create knowledge for social good; and therefore, helps to resist the slow reduction of UK educational institutions to little more than buyers and sellers of goods and services.

Given recent news about the institutionalisation of trade governance under the TTIP – which many independent analysts see as little more than the further promotion of corporate interests ahead of those of  sovereign governments and their citizens – it is imperative that the UK population engages with the issues of trade justice. The only way this can be achieved, is if those with the privilege of a university education are involved in active and critical knowledge generation around the related issues.

Now is the time to rethink what it means for a university to claim an active and notable role in the global fair trade movement: buying certified coffee is no longer anywhere near good enough, and the independent and critical analysis of both mainstream and alternative economic governance is now essential.

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