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Ethix Ventures Interviews Ryan Zinn on Fair Trade and Refocusing on the Farmer

Ethix Ventures Interviews Ryan Zinn on Fair Trade and Refocusing on the Farmer

Ryan Zinn is Coordinator for the Fair World Project, a campaign of the Organic Consumers Association. He is a widely-recognized expert and thought leader on issues ranging from the organic movement to fair trade and child abuse/neglect.

Ethix: Fair Trade is a large and growing movement. Here at Ethix Ventures, we have our roots in anti-sweatshop work, which has crossed over into fair trade, as cotton and even apparel factories have begun to receive fair trade certifications. Your work with the Organic Consumers Association also crosses over into fair trade. What do fair trade supporters and enthusiasts need to know about recent developments in fair trade?

Ryan Zinn: The fair trade movement and market are going through expected and needed growing pains. Not unlike the organic movement over a decade ago, we are challenged with ensuring that the explosion of consumer demand for social and ethically produced goods maintain high standards and ensures that farmers, workers and artisans remain in the driver seat of these efforts.

Right now the marketplace is flooded with hundreds of seals and certifiers, many with dubious or unverifiable claims, creating consumer confusion and apathy. Fair Trade USA’s recent split from Fairtrade International has merely accelerated the divisions already within the fair trade arena. That said, there are a number of issues we should keep in mind.

First, fair traders must look to rebuilding a true social movement, based upon trade justice, solidarity and system change. The fair trade marketplace is merely a complimentary aspect of this larger movement and should operate primarily as a vehicle to transform fair trade consumers to fair trade activists.

Second, to ensure that the fair trade market remains accountable to producers, workers and consumers, fair trade activists and consumers need to roll their sleeves up and get involved in the tedious, but necessary work of monitoring 3rd party fair trade standards setting. A key element to the organic market’s success is that everyone from farmers, companies, consumers and advocates have regularly engaged in organic standard and policy work. Fair traders must do the same to ensure that standards remain high and reflect the needs of farmers and workers.

Ethix: Tell us about Fair World Project’s new “Just Economy” project. What is it, and why is it important?

Ryan Zinn: Most of the people that grow, process and produce our food and apparel suffer poverty wages, unsafe work conditions and other rights violations. FWP supports diverse mechanisms and pathways to justice in the marketplace. While not a panacea, these mechanisms provide concrete opportunities for consumers to support products that reflect their values, educate others, and provide a lifeline to farmers, workers and artisans, while we simultaneously work in conjunction to improve the global system that impacts us all.

Our hope with this informational campaign is to provide concrete examples and resources for people looking to support organizing and marketplace solidarity efforts for all aspects of the supply chain. That said, one of our primary goals at the Fair World Project is to engage and activate people beyond simple ethical consumption by facilitating their participation and support for campaigns that are movement based and create broader system change.

We see the fight against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, better known as “NAFTA on Steroids” as a key battle moving forward towards system change.

Ethix: You recently visited the Alta Gracia Project in the Dominican Republic. Can you share a bit about what brought you there, and what you took away from the experience?

Ryan Zinn: FWP organizes student delegations to visit with workers rights advocates, union leaders, and farmer organizations in the Dominican Republic several times a year.

I had the privilege to join a student solidarity delegation to visit the Alta Gracia project in the Dominican Republic last January during one of these trips. The Alta Gracia Project is especially unique and a superb example of how worker empowerment, with student solidarity, can create a one of a kind living wage, union apparel project. Not only do Alta Gracia workers receive a living wage and a dignified workplace, the company’s factories are verified by the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization that investigates working conditions in factories around the globe.

I was particularly impressed with FEDOTRAZONAS, the Free Trade Zone Union Federation in the Dominican Republic, their tenacity and solidarity with other workers, Dominican and Haitian alike. FWP is launching a campaign this fall in support of Alta Gracia.

Ethix: I live in Seattle (literally across the street from the headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) so I hear a lot of buzz about the connection between the foundation and Monsanto, but I’m never really sure where to turn for information on the subject. What’s your take?

Ryan Zinn: The Gates Foundation has bought into the common fallacy that hunger is a result of farmers not producing enough food to feed the world’s growing population. However, as the Institute for Food and Development Policy – Food First has pointed out, there is in fact more than enough food to easily feed the world (4.3 pounds of food per person a day worldwide). The real problem is poverty and inequality.

Techno fixes, like the genetically engineered crops Monsanto producers, only exacerbate structural inequalities by forcing farmers into debt and destroying the productive diverse agricultural systems that form the backbone of the global food supply.

According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, small farmers hold the key to doubling food production while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty. Similarly, Via Campesina, the global movement of millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, has demonstrated that small farmers can address the global food crisis, in a far more equitable and sustainable way than agribusiness and large-scale farming.

For a deeper look into Monsanto and its connection to the Gates Foundation, please visit the Organic Consumers Association’s Millions Against Monsanto Campaign site.

Ethix: On a personal level, what led you to create a career for yourself advocating for the well-being of people and the environment?

Ryan Zinn: Twenty years ago I was an apolitical, political science student in need of an internship to satisfy a prerequisite for my major. I had the opportunity to clerk for my local city council and research the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and I was blown away by the impact NAFTA would have on working people, the environment and farmers.

Since then my work has taken me to Washington, DC, Paraguay, Mexico and beyond with fantastic organizations like the Center for International Environmental Law, Global Exchange and the Organic Consumer Association. Importantly, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked with many inspirational social movements over the years.

We look forward to your thoughts. You can also download the entire interview here.

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