Smart Choices: An Interview with Fairtrade Canada’s Michael Zelmer

Fair Trade is a movement with an ambitious goal to change the way that we live for the better. [“Fair Trade” refers to the need to promote fairness in the market and treat people — from farmers to consumers — with respect whereas “Fairtrade” refers to the organization that created the certification system for Fair Trade products.]  Farmers and artisans are provided with an opportunity to celebrate and share their work, and buyers are given a chance to support them by purchasing their products, and in the process change the way trade and business relations operate. This is an interview about the principles of Fair Trade and why according to Michael Zelmer of Fairtrade Canada, we should consider becoming involved in this growing movement.

What year did Fair Trade arrive in Canada?
Fair Trade happened here [in Canada] in the 1960s. And it originated with Ten Thousand Villages back in the 1940s. The certification system began in 1988 in the Netherlands and the first certified product came here [to Canada] in 1997.

Within the past year, how much have Fair Trade sales increased in the Canadian market?
On our website there are tables that show these figures. These surveys are done every couple of years. There’s also a survey of Canadian perceptions of Fair Trade.

(You can find these charts and the survey by clicking this link:

Zelmer1Michael Zelmer of Fair Trade Canada

When we talk about local and buying Fair Trade, it seems to have distance implicit in that. People buy chocolate, they consume coffee, etc. made from local or international farmer’s products… the principle for dealing with farmers and international farmers should be similar, regardless.

The University of Alberta in Edmonton is attempting to become a Fair Trade campus. Why is it important for cities and schools to promote Fair Trade?
The town or university doesn’t get certified [only products are certified], but they get a status that recognizes their leadership in promoting Fair Trade. If you have cities and universities that are purchasing [Fair Trade] products, then they get goods that provide information. People buy items with limited information. With Fair Trade certified products, they’re able to know that there are certain standards related to the environment, related to social relationships between the buyers and sellers and the general labour and human rights standards that are all put into place. So it gives [buyers] at the University the advantage of knowing that there’s a set standard in place… so they have a positive impact with their purchases.

Once a town and/or university become certified do Fair Trade sales, overall, tend to increase?
Sales tend to increase and it influences ethical purchasing policies developed by cities and institutions like universities. What we see is that when a large institution makes a decision like this, it sends a signal to the marketplace to show that Fair Trade is important. It also creates an incentive to make more Fairtrade products available. Companies now have a way to do a bit of good, through the products, making the symbolism of their actions spread as well.

What’s the relation between buying local and buying Fair Trade?
When we talk about local and buying Fair Trade, it seems to have distance implicit in that. People buy chocolate, they consume coffee, etc. made from local or international farmer’s products… the principle for dealing with farmers and international farmers should be similar, regardless. There’s an issue of understanding the system that supports the production of these products. When you’re buying local it’s not fair to think “it’s from nearby so that makes it local”. Buying local is about security—making sure we have the necessary infrastructure to grow our own food and to support local farmers. Those same principles are in play when it comes to Fair Trade.

How does the middleperson function to decrease farmer’s sales?
When we speak about the middleman, we’re not trying to implement a rule that they must be removed from the supply chain. We’re looking at them to point to at a problem that often comes up. If you think about a product from the point where it comes from the ground to the point where it’s consumed, there are many intermediaries [middlepersons] at either end. When you have many intermediaries, money will be removed and put into the hands of companies shipping out products. So, if I’m a farmer selling a product and there’s only one person or intermediary between me and that consumer, then in principle, there’s a greater likelihood that I, the farmer, will get a greater share of money. There’s another important thing to think about: power. It’s not just a question of how many people there are between the producer and the buyer. It also has to do with who has the power to determine who gets how much money. So you can have a supply chain with just three people in it, and one person can balance the funds equally. We [Fairtrade Canada] want to increase the likelihood that more resources will flow back to the farmer and to level out the playing field to give farmers a chance.

Do you think that artisans and farmers who participate in Fair Trade are less likely to be marginalized, when we can see how Fair Trade is influencing business dealings in the world?
It’s a difficult question to answer. All [Fair Trade] products are coming from small scale farmers and when they get their products certified, it has benefits for them. Whether or not they’re less likely to get exploited in the trade relationship, it tends to depend on the percentage of Fair Trade certified products they’re able to sell. Coffee is by far, the most commonly understood Fair Trade certified product you’ll find in Canada. But, on average, coffee co-operatives are only selling about a third of certified [Fair Trade] coffee. What that means, is that there’s a large percentage of their coffee that isn’t managed by Fair Trade… that’s why this question is difficult. The important thing is that what we’re doing is providing a structure for the co-operatives themselves to flourish. A quick example is twenty-five years ago all cocoa in the Dominican Republic was controlled by five rich families. But a small scale co-operative of farmers challenged this, and they now control over twenty-five percent of the region’s cocoa. So as a result, they have become important and there’s a structure for farmers to be powerful.

The key thing is to understand is that it’s [Fair Trade’s mission] about allowing farmer’s to become powerful above and beyond Fair Trade and certified products. The relationship to people here in Canada is that we’re supporting them, and not in a charitable manner with donations, but by making smart choices. We may be paying a bit more for those smart choices but they support all these transformative things that are happening out there in the world.

See the interview here: