How to reconcile fair trade and ecological relocation?


While the fair trade sector is slowly developing, consumer interest in ecology is rapidly accelerating, as we saw in the second round of the French municipal elections last weekend. So much so that many of them sometimes consider that ecology (favoured by local consumption) and fair trade are opposed, notably because of the release of CO2, linked to transport, one of the important factors of global warming and the ecological footprint. However, there are nevertheless approaches where these two currents can coexist, such as South-South fair trade or selective relocation.

The main interest of fair trade lies more in the awareness than in the volumes sold.

Fair trade labels are mainly intended to certify that the products sold have been paid a "fair" price and that working conditions and wages have been respected. Fair trade increased 20-fold between 2001 and 2007, but despite this strong development, as it represents only 0.02% of total world trade. Moreover, it affects only 0.1% of peasants or 0.15% of those who are most in need. This is why, at present, the main interest of fair trade is to promote the development of awareness and a better understanding of the societal mechanisms responsible for economic inequalities. This awareness on the part of citizens, consumers and producers is the key to change towards a fairer and more ecological world.

One of the limits of fair trade and more generally of labels (organic, social...), such as the Max Havelaar label (the first international label of the Fairtrade movement created by Frans van der Hoff), lies in the fact that the auditors who verify the respect of social and environmental standards are paid by the companies they control. As a result, this privatization regulates the economy and reduces their financial independence.

Is ecology compatible with South-North fair trade?

According to the World Commission on Environment and Development (1988), improving working conditions increases the chances of preserving the environment and thus moving towards sustainable production. For the more financial wealth a country has, the more it potentially has the capacity to bear the cost of protecting its environment. However, fair trade is limited by the ecological principle, which implies reducing transport distances that increase carbon emissions. That is to say, only what cannot be produced locally should be imported, in order to limit transport-related pollution and food self-sufficiency. For example, in Switzerland, the "organic label" Bourgeon prohibits transport by air and imported raw materials must not exceed 90%, while for the "Swiss organic label" Bourgeon, the authorized limit is only 10%. In 2010, there were around 800 production or marketing farms with this label. Indeed, the closer the production is to the consumer, the less pollution it causes, which is the opposite of fair trade.

The objection of self-managing socialist growth implies in particular to stop the unbridled productivism of the consumer society, to develop the local economy by relocating it, to reduce pollution linked to transport, to consume local fruit, therefore in season, to avoid competition with small local producers in the North... Some ecologists therefore consider that ethical and fair trade should be abolished, as it is detrimental to a truly "ecological and sustainable" production. Others, less radical, envisage rather a "selective decrease", such as Nicolas Hulot, or a " selective relocation" of the economy, such as Thomas Coutrot, the co-president of Attac. This would consist of relocating the majority of each nation's production, while retaining a minor share of imports from foreign and distant countries. Because, if you live in Lille, importing essential goods from Belgium can be part of the selective relocation process, from an ecological point of view. On the other hand, in terms of economic autonomy, the criteria then become a little more restrictive. In the case of decline and selective relocation, some sectors may continue to grow, such as food production, as long as essential needs in the South are not met, while others, such as transport, are expected to decline from now on, both in the North and in the South. Nor would international trade be completely interrupted, but limited to essential sectors.

In this way, international solidarity would not be interrupted, but better thought out, in order to allow development that favours economic and political autonomy, with the preservation of non-renewable resources and more generally ecology. As can be seen, each of the choices of actions of international solidarity presupposes a profound reflection that must take into account each of the elements of the "world system" in a systemic perspective.

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Autonomous development presupposes selective relocation and less transport

However, in the 1970s, the non-aligned countries were calling for self-centered development, notably through the voice of the economist Samir Amin (1972). A sustainable development project should be based on the satisfaction of basic needs, autonomy and respect for cultural identity observes Roy Preiswerk[1]. Like all development actions, an action can have the opposite effect, when it leads to a loss of cultural identity, a loss of economic and political autonomy, and a reduction in food-producing agriculture (Galtung, 1975).

Autonomous development presupposes global or selective (i.e. partial) relocation, as well as the right to a certain degree of protectionism. 

Economic autonomy is the precondition for economic openness, otherwise the national economy risks being dominated by foreign transnational corporations. It is therefore also necessary to develop, in particular, food-producing agriculture. The latter means that agriculture must enable populations to feed themselves. Conversely, liberal globalisation promotes local production geared towards exports, for example of cereals such as tea and coffee, which are not essential local consumption. Some NGOs, such as the members of MINGA (a federation of fair trade actors seeking to integrate the principles of degrowth). MINGA therefore tries to ensure that the products of the South, which it sells in industrialized countries, do not account for too large a share of production. So that cooperatives in the South can maintain sufficient independence.

While liberal globalization increased dependence on the outside world, transport and pollution, in contrast, in traditional cultures the means of getting around were slower, often pedestrian, based on animal traction or the use of sailing. They respected the environment and their speed was more humane, closer to the pace of the walker's steps, which in a way is the primary standard of the diminishing individual. The latter therefore seeks a decrease in transport in order to reduce the individual, national and global ecological footprint, notably by relocating production. 

The decline in transport also means that it is necessary to rediscover a taste for local holidays, for the pleasure of a simple walk in the surrounding countryside, rather than the systematic exoticism of the other side of the world. Reconciling fair trade and reduction therefore implies limiting the consumption of "essential" products and using non-polluting modes of transport. Moreover, in 40 to 80 years from now, oil reserves should be exhausted, leaving only sailing, as the merchant navy has used it for centuries, or the discovery of non-polluting and renewable energies. But at the moment these remain in the realm of speculation.

The fair trade sector: North-South, South-South or North-North?

Traditionally, fair trade has been considered to be about North-South relations. However, Minga believes that South-South and even North-North relations must also be developed. For example, Oxfam's headquarters in the Philippines is increasingly selling products to Oxfam stores in Bangkok. Minga, as well as the Peasant Confederation, believe that the concept of fair trade should also cover North/North trade solidarity relations. The economy of proximity (Amap), the solidarity economy, for example, could be part of this framework.

However, the Max Havelaar Association considers that the social situation of developing countries is such that they should be distinguished by creating instead a "solidarity trade" label for North/North trade and a "fair trade" label for South/North trade. Indeed, the salary and income levels of the poorest people are miserable (from $30 to $60/month), and there is child labour, forced labour and working hours of 15 hours a day. Whereas in France, the legal minimum wage is 1055 euros net and the poorest are not starving.

NGOs that intend to reconcile fair trade, ecology and economic autonomy seek to import products from the South, limiting themselves for example to local handicrafts (art objects, clothes...), so as not to diminish their food crops, or not to compete with small producers in the North, who sell honey near their homes, for example. They only import food, such as chocolate or coffee, which cannot be grown in industrialized countries. However, even this type of food can limit food agriculture, as local people cannot feed themselves mainly on coffee, for example. In some regions of South America, such as Bolivia, the development of fair trade quinoa is growing to such an extent that it unbalances and disrupts the production of other cereals and thus disrupts local food autonomy. Other products cannot be produced in the North, for example Indian carpets labelled by Step-Suisse, and more generally handicrafts that are part of a specific culture.

Whatever the choice that will be made, there is already competition between certain products labelled organic and fair trade and French organic products, for example local honey producers who sometimes find themselves in competition with a fair trade honey producer from the South.

However, given that Fair Trade represents only a tiny share of world trade (0.02%), this type of drift has almost no impact at the macroeconomic level, and the negative impact when it does occur is currently limited to very circumscribed trade sectors. Nevertheless, it must be taken into account in the reflection for an alternative production model and from the point of view of popular education and citizen awareness, which is currently one of the main interests of fair trade.

Thus, in the long term, one can imagine that the majority of fair trade would be South-South and North-North (solidarity trade), while a small share of traditional and fair trade flows would concern relations between the South and the North.

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Ecology and international solidarity are inseparable

Indeed, the priority of the poorest populations is to satisfy their basic needs and only then to take an interest in ecological issues. Because we die more quickly from lack of food when we live on $1 a day than from pollution. Reconciling ecology and autonomous development therefore implies allowing the poorest to take into account, economically and culturally, basic needs and ecology from the outset. Otherwise, the latter will remain a dead letter. Yet the number of poor people in the world is still in the majority compared to that of rich people, particularly in the industrialized countries.

In any case, for those who refuse to apply a Malthusian ecological policy, it consists in letting the poorest populations starve to death. For this type of neo-liberal Malthusian policy is opposed to another policy, one that redistributes global wealth but allows itself to exploit the resources of developing countries.

Liepietz also stresses that "there is always an articulation of two strategies, in the sense that even in a very self-centred development, a source of financing is needed that allows the purchase of products of the globalized 'big economy' (computers, televisions, etc.). This source is national redistribution (administration, social spending) or local exports. A country development project will for example integrate farm tourism or organic and farm quality production"[2].


The desire to relocate society is part of the history of local development policies.

It should be remembered, however, that local development, which is qualitative, should not be confused with local growth, which is quantitative. Alain Liepietz reminds us that "it is a long road that began at the end of the 1970s, a period when the perception of the world was based on the observation of the dependence of countries in the former colonial area. At that time, the dominant model was that of a centre (the developed countries of the North) hindering development on the periphery (the countries of the South). On the doctrinal and practical level, the response of the Marxist left was protectionism, the substitution of local production for imports and the theory of development poles. On the contrary, we see that the autonomy of local small and medium-sized enterprises is likely to generate new local dynamics of development in the long term (...). At the beginning of the 1980s, economists used the words "endogenous" or "local" development and spoke of "diffuse industrialization"[3] ".

"During the 1980s, the local, initially assimilated to the rural, was thought of as an alternative place to the crisis. Little by little, the discourse on the local has spread to all types of spaces, urban neighborhoods, and especially employment areas"[4]. "The nation state has lost most of its power to coordinate economic activity, which is itself increasingly subject to the global market. This implies giving priority to areas where more autonomy and freedom can be regained. This means creating new forms of social life and consumption with a different relationship to work and a different division of labour. A new strategy of dialectic is to be invented between autonomous and heteronomous (i.e. dependent on the outside) societies"[5].

Author of " Who runs the world? " Edition Libre et solidaire, 2019, and " 6 paths to a solidarity-based degrowth "Edition Le Croquant, 2017.
New book to be released in October 2020 Relocation and international regulation in the service of ecology, solidarity, democracy and economic autonomy".

[1] PREISWERK Roy, in IUED: You have to eat to live...Controversies on Basic Needs and Development, PUF, 1980, p 132.
[2] LIEPIETZ Alain, " Du développement local au développement durable, Op. cit. 2002.
[3] LIEPIETZ Alain, " Du développement local au développement durable : Limites d'une pratique, perspectives de deux idéologies ", Territoires n°431, October 2002.
[4] Yves JEAN, Du développement local au développement durable : la nécessaire mutation culturelle de l'état et des élus, p. 22-31, in " Emigrés - immigrés dans le développement local ", edited by Mohamed CHAREF and Patrick GONIN. - Agadir: Editions Sud-Contact, 2005, 361 p.
[5] François Plassard, Autonomy in everyday life, Responses to the crisis? Pratiques Sociales, Paris, 1984.

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