Who owns a movement?

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TransFair USA, the largest fair trade certifier in the U.S., changed its name to Fair Trade USA and is trying to trademark that name. What a shame.

It was only 12 years ago that IATP started TransFair USA. We didn’t hold on to it for long, since at the same time we also started Peace Coffee, a 100 percent fair trade coffee company (later certified by TransFair). To avoid a conflict of interest, IATP transferred all the accounts and assets of TransFair to another legal entity, and hired Paul Rice — who is still TransFair’s president — to run it. During the past 12 years, TransFair has grown from a small project to a globally significant institution, by far the leading fair trade certifying organization in the United States. IATP believes strongly in the principles of fair trade — paying producers a fair price, transparent contracts, independent third party certification. TransFair’s success story should make us proud. It doesn’t. TransFair’s growth has seemed to come at the expense of some of the core values of fair trade, making it increasingly more difficult to defend. But changing its name to Fair Trade USA and then trying to trademark it? This is the last straw. It also does not bode well for TransFair’s future.

Let’s remember this: TransFair didn’t grow in a vacuum. Over this same period the fair trade movement in the U.S. and globally has multiplied beyond all expectation. TransFair developed a business model that aggressively pursued signing up large coffee roasters and retailers to the TransFair label. While not the model IATP had in mind when we started TransFair, it has been very successful. The TransFair label can be seen from Starbucks to Wal-Mart. A downside of this model is that 100 percent fair trade coffee companies, who tend be smaller, more local, and, frankly, more fair trade — not only in percentage of business, but in paying producers more, having more transparency and supporting small producer cooperatives, etc. — have felt disenfranchised and are either migrating to a new label or considering self-certifying — a tremendous step backwards since independent third-party certification is a cornerstone of consumer confidence. At the same time, TransFair has turned its focus to the larger growers to assure the large roasters and retailers adequate supplies of coffee. This has led to small co-operative producers being edged out. TransFair could have done any number of things to differentiate a 100 percent fair trade coffee company like Peace Coffee from a Starbucks, for instance, but didn’t.

By trying to claim exclusive rights over the term Fair Trade USA, TransFair is making claim to a movement that, in large part, it is abandoning. We urge TransFair to reconsider plans to trademark the words fair trade and to focus building a strong fair trade movement that does the best it can by the producers, importers, retailers, and ultimately, the consumers who believe that trade can be fair and just.