University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh becomes first “Fair Trade University”

The news from Chancellor Richard H. Wells that UWO would become the nation’s first fair trade university was the only announcement met with applause during Tuesday’s opening day ceremonies, Wells said.

Fair trade certified products – which are produced under sustainable, decent and fair labor conditions – will now be available at university dining establishments, catered functions and in department offices when possible.

Colleges and universities selling fair trade products is nothing new, but the difference in this case appears to be the source of the proclamation and the scale. The magnitude of this announcement cannot be ignored as the Chancellor of a large public university is declaring the campus-wide use of fair trade products. Nevertheless, there are several concerns with the “Fair trade University” label. One could easily view this as another example of an attempt to address an issue solely through consumption.

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People in general seem to flock to solutions that just involve the purchase of an item. Worried about energy scarcity? Buy a hybrid. Feel strongly about a controversial political issue? Get a t-shirt. Concerned over the quality of life of developing world producers? Buy some fair trade coffee. Even with a plan to largely increase the share of a school’s food and handcrafts that come from fair trade sources, UW-Oshkosh is stopping short of addressing several key fair trade ideals and recognizing the limits of consumerism. Where is the goal to redesign the food trade system, increase accessibility to markets or develop relationships with the global south?

Much like Fair trade labeling standards, the “Fair Trade University” label also promotes doing the bare minimum in order to receive a label or recognition. For a product, what is the incentive to pay the producer more if the only goal is to receive a certification and access to a market niche? For a University, why should it make an attempt to go above and beyond if it already has the prestige from being recognized as a “Fair Trade University”? Since most of the other necessary motivations are intrinsic, we likely wouldn’t have seen the recent growth in the fair trade system without labeling, but by placing benchmarks rather than pushing a continuous effort, there is a risk of stalling the movement.

So, what exactly does it mean to be a “Fair Trade University”? UW-Oshkosh endorsed a resolution that ensures its pursuit of Fair Trade products for dining establishments, campus catering, University Stores and department offices “whenever possible” and encouraging their purchase by students, faculty and staff. As said earlier, this initiative ignores important aspects of the Fair Trade system, and doesn’t require the University to evaluate “Fair Trade” options. Not all “Fair Trade Certified” products are the same. The amount paid to the producer, the manner in which income is redistributed in communities, and the number of middlemen between producer and consumer all vary depending on who you buy from. A comprehensive Fair Trade plan should involve thorough research into the products, rather than just requiring the existence of the label.

A true “Fair Trade University” should also look to develop relationships with producers in the global south, and create learning opportunities for students in order for there to be a two-way exchange. Without looking for alternatives to the global food trade system, one of the main objectives of the Fair Trade system is being ignored.

Nevertheless, this is an important step forward in the Fair Trade campaign. Hopefully, UW-Oshkosh and other universities will continue to look to improve rather than stagnate and become complacent with a “job well done.”

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