By: Sean McHugh - Executive Director of the Canadian Fair Trade Network

When we think about Fair Trade, we immediately associate this concept with images of coffee, tea, and chocolate, along with the various other global commodities, representing our daily rituals. Conversely, when we think about local, we often think about root vegetables, dairy and grains in which Canada is a major exporting country. Often times, what becomes lost are the commonalities between the smallholder coffee grower tucked within the Peruvian hillside village, and the small-scale prairie family making a living amidst Canada's wheat belt.

Often existing in isolation, where fighting to make enough to feed their families is a day to day reality, the small producers and farmers of this world do not toil from day to day to produce the wants and excesses of our modern existence, but rather the day to day needs of life; food. While the need for coffee may be debatable to some, the reality is that the majority of our food originates within a complex and interconnected global system, without us, as consumers even knowing it.

While healthy, nutritious food eludes the conventional discourse of human rights, it is a basic need and therefore must be viewed as such, whether it's grown down the street, harvested around the corner or shipped from distant continents. As our food systems have become increasing complex, and often detrimental to those who work within them, there is one commonality that binds the food justice movement together -- co-operatives.

The root of it all

At the heart of the Fair Trade system lays the co-operative: a democratic, participatory form of organizing that exudes equal opportunity, fairness and equity. And why is this the case? As Bill Barrett from Planet Bean coffee, a worker owned co-op based out of Guelph, Ontario, which buys Fair Trade coffee, explains “co-ops are farmer owned, run and controlled; they are democratic, participatory and provide the best possible opportunity for small farmers to engage with the much larger world and market” so in this way co-ops are “ the fair trade certification standards as they are a necessity for farmers to gather together in an organization that is collectively owned and democratically managed.” This fact was not established by accident, but rather by design, as co-operatives have a way of creating environments which are empowering, enabling and transformative, qualities that few other forms of organization provide.

PERU San Rafael Coop - Bananas

At the centre of many Canadian businesses as well…

Co-operatives are not new by any means, though they are often overlooked and therefore not noticed; globally it is estimated that roughly 800 million people are members of co-ops, while in Canada it is estimated that nearly 40% of Canada’s population are members of at least one. Co-ops in Canada exist from farmer groups, to credit unions, to grocery stores and make up a sizeable percentage of Canadian jobs and the Canadian economy.

Interestingly enough, Canadian Co-ops have fared far better in recent times, compared with their conventional counterparts, despite the global economic recession. So why has this been the case?

PERU Propalto Coop - Avocados

Based upon values and mutual gain

There's more to a co-operative than just bottom line profit. Intricately tied to their communities, co-ops have the ability to operate based upon social good and mutual benefit, creating more secure, longer term systems, effectively eluding many of the built-in risks seen within conventional organizational structures. Co-ops have a way of building community and a sense of belonging, where members both contribute to and benefit from their existence; members therefore become intricately tied to their success. Additionally, benefits of co-ops often extend beyond the reach of its members, often benefiting the community at large.  This is the case both at home and around the world, as with Fairtrade, premiums are dispersed through the co-op that often go to support community focused development, such as education and health.

Peru Apromaltby Co-op - Mango

Not by accident, but by design

It was not by chance that the Fair Trade system came to these conclusions. Co-ops within the Fair Trade movement today remain the linchpin and the key underlying factor to successful, sustainable economic development. Co-ops are built upon relationships and mutual benefit, where social and environmental sustainability are valued. Addressing the challenges of the future will be successful if these principles are adhered to and placed front and centre.

PERU Apbosman Coop - community school



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Co-operatives and Fair Trade – Different Sides of the Same Coin?
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