9 Dec 2022

Partnering for “meaningful” human rights due diligence in a changing landscape: A Q&A with researchers of a new Fairtrade and human rights study

Colombian coffee farmer 870

“I understand that as a human being, I have the right to be respected and to respect others.”

This explanation was given by a participant in a study published today on how Fairtrade contributes to upholding human rights.

With the International Labour Organization reporting that progress against child labour has stalled – standing at 160 million children globally, 70 percent of whom are working in agriculture – and with inflation, conflict and climate change threatening livelihoods that were already precarious, it is more important than ever that the push for stronger human rights protections continues. This includes legislation that requires companies to conduct human rights due diligence within their supply chains, for instance increasing dialogue with workers and putting in place processes and systems to check for violations and take action when they are found.

The new study looks at Fairtrade’s unique position in the landscape of human rights due diligence, investigating the relevance of Fairtrade’s interventions and the potential roles for Fairtrade in the HRDD process. It assesses five important human rights domains: living wage and living incomes, working conditions, freedom of association (such as the right to form and join a union), child and forced labour, and discrimination and women’s rights. Local research teams explored specific human rights outcomes with coffee farmers and banana workers from 29 producer organizations across three countries (Ethiopia, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic), through more than 100 interviews, 9 workshops, and document review. The study also looks at Fairtrade’s role in contributing to human rights due diligence efforts.

We spoke with the two lead researchers of this study, Dr. Annika van Baar of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Floor Elize Knoote of DIMES Consultancy, to get their insights into what Fairtrade – as well as producers, business and policy experts – can take away from the findings.

You conducted this study using a methodology called “outcome harvesting,” which involves a series of interviews and analysis with – in this case – farmers and workers to determine whether and how Fairtrade contributed to specified human rights outcomes. Why is this methodology particularly suited for this context, namely getting information about potentially sensitive human rights issues in farm and plantation settings?

We used this method because we wanted to trace changes in human rights outcomes in complex social contexts. We were particularly interested in shifts in power relations, as these are central to shifts in human rights outcomes. For this we needed to leave a lot of room for, for example, unintended consequences, reasons for lack of impact and the importance of the structural, social and cultural contexts in which farmers and workers work. All this is necessary to learn about how change can take place in complex contexts.

The outcome harvesting method enabled us to focus our research on changes that Fairtrade potentially contributed to. These “focus outcomes” were produced in a highly participatory process, which allowed us to learn a lot about Fairtrade’s perspective on their impact and created depth to the outcomes that were to be verified through empirical methods. Rather than focussing on isolated variables or key measures, we created story-like descriptions of change that formed the basis of the field work.

Due to COVID-19, we worked with local research teams (ECCO-plan in Colombia, OMBICA in the Dominican Republic and a team around Dr. Setargew Kenaw in Ethiopia) to do the field work. The outcome harvesting method gave us the opportunity to share the harvested outcomes as “mini research projects” to these teams, again providing focus but also leaving space for a holistic analysis, for which we also made use of the local researchers’ in depth and independent expertise.

Human rights are an increasingly important topic in sustainability, especially with countries beginning to enact legislation that requires companies to conduct due diligence on the human and environmental rights of producers and workers in their supply chains. How generalizable are the findings of this study to other regions and producers, if at all?

We looked specifically at the coffee sector in Ethiopia and Colombia, and the banana sector in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, which each share salient human rights issues (between them and with other sectors) but also have their specific issues. Therefore, we need to be careful with generalizing findings on specific human rights issues to other sectors.

However, findings from specific contexts with specific salient human rights risks together with a broader analysis of Fairtrade’s relevance for Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) has conclusions that have a broader relevance.

For example, we found that Fairtrade’s interventions and infrastructure appears fit for contextualised action tailored to specific vulnerabilities, which is relevant for various aspects of HRDD that corporations will need to carry out. This also counts for other sectors, although Fairtrade should realistically distinguish between well-known and well-understood risks and lesser known, less visible risks (which may differ between different contexts).

Importantly, our finding that Fairtrade should be a partner for HRDD, and not a proxy used by business, is independent of sectors: we argue that Fairtrade can only contribute to meaningful HRDD if they resist pressures from businesses that might prefer to outsource their responsibilities to certifiers and auditors.

Looking across the two situations – small-scale coffee farms and larger-scale banana plantations – in what areas did you find that Fairtrade has been able to contribute to the realization of human rights?

We found that Fairtrade’s core interventions, such as the Premium and Minimum Price, prevent some of the negative human rights impacts related to lower prices and price fluctuations. In Ethiopia and Colombia we found that Fairtrade contributes continuity, stability and confidence for coffee farmers, for example when they are able to improve the quality of their coffee. In the banana sector, the Premium contributes to a higher standard of living, and more empowerment, sometimes also for the most vulnerable.

Also the Standards show potential, mostly because of the regular and inclusive process of revision and because they can increase the focus of stakeholders on those most vulnerable negative human rights impacts.

However, the study also shows that it is often difficult for Fairtrade to affect power relations because the reach of interventions is limited by economic pressures (such as price fluctuations), cultural values (such as tradition and the patriarchy), and national legislation (such as minimum wage and the right to unionize). The latter has been and can be impacted by Fairtrade through advocacy, though, which can be a key contribution to human rights in some contexts.

You conclude quite clearly in the study that Fairtrade – or any voluntary certification – cannot take over companies’ human rights due diligence responsibilities. In your view, where can Fairtrade have the greatest impact?

In the report we outline how Fairtrade can play important roles as a partner in the steps of HRDD that corporations need to undertake to fulfil their Responsibility to Respect. To summarize, we conclude that Fairtrade’s contextualised approach and action, flexibility to address salient issues, the organization’s wealth of knowledge and long lasting relations with producers and workers can be very valuable for corporations, for example in identifying and assessing actual and potential human rights impacts and in ceasing, preventing and mitigating them. In short, Fairtrade can give companies a “head start” into making human rights issues in a supply chain more visible and contextualised.

Importantly, Fairtrade can mitigate the risk of “cut and run” (leaving the business relationship immediately after adverse human rights impacts have come up) which is a practice that might become a more salient human rights risk, in and of itself, in a future where HRDD obligations become more stringent. Moreover, Fairtrade has a unique position to promote long term relationships focussed on transformative change and to prevent producers bearing unfair costs for the HRDD of manufacturers, retailers and brands.

In our view, Fairtrade can have the biggest impact on meaningful (rather than tick-the-box) Human Rights Due Diligence by resisting short term pressures by the businesses they work with and recognize the long-term implications of their positioning in the developing HRDD landscape in a way that is in line with their traditional mission to benefit farmers and workers.

Read the full study.