Fairtrade’s new CEO

In November 2016, the owner of one of the world’s most identifiable certification marks, Fairtrade International, announced its new CEO.

> Darío Soto Abril comes to his new role as the CEO of Fairtrade International after almost 15 years at the Trust for the Americas, where he served as the Chief Operating Officer, building coalitions and public private partnerships around free trade, workers’ rights and human rights.

In his time at the Trust, Soto led the expansion of the organisation from just three member countries to 22 nations across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Soto’s work there resulted in greater participation of worker organisations and unions during trade negotiations in Colombia and Central America.

Originally hailing from Colombia, Soto says that his experience of growing up in the 1980s in a nation in the grip of a drug war was formative in the development of his attitude towards work by organisations such as Fairtrade International.

“Unionised workers were killed by paramilitary groups, farmers were displaced from their farms, minorities had very few rights,” he tells Global Coffee Report. “Because of my background, I felt very connected with Fairtrade’s mission.”

Soto also came across Fairtrade’s work in his role at the Trust of the Americas.

“An experience I always carry with me involved meeting members of a banana cooperative in Northern Colombia while I was working in identifying best practices in reconciliation and finding ways in which economic growth could contribute to peace efforts. The banana farmers I encountered explained to me how the Fairtrade premium helped their cooperatives make significant investments in their communities,” he says.

“I firmly believe that beyond economic development, the Fairtrade model supports communities to contribute to peace, stability and better living conditions in developing countries.”
Coming from Colombia, which is the third largest coffee producer in the world with some 500,000 Colombian famiies dependent on coffee for their livelihoods, Soto says that he also has a strong appreciation for the importance of the coffee industry to farming communities around the world.

Dario Soto Abril

“Coffee is in my heart and in my soul,” Soto says, adding that coffee has played a special role in the development of the Fairtrade movement. Coffee was the first product to be Fairtrade certified, with the first Fairtrade coffee from Mexico reaching the Netherlands’ market in 1988-89.

Soto says that his plan for coffee under his leadership is simple.

“We’ll work towards the goal that by 2020, a significantly higher percentage of Fairtrade coffee farmers will be selling at least 50 per cent of their production on Fairtrade terms,” he says.

“To achieve this, I plan to engage relevant stakeholders in the Fairtrade system in identifying innovative ways to enhance our business model for coffee. This way we will assist small-scale coffee farmers in creating a greater value for themselves and for consumers.”

This ambition to increase the proportion of Fairtrade coffee sold by producers is driven by the knowledge that the impact on farmers and workers is stronger when the proportion of production sold as Fairtrade reaches a “critical mass” of between 30 and 50 per cent.

According to Fairtrade’s strategy documents, achieving this ratio of sales of certified goods will take the producers involved a long way towards securing a living income.

While Soto’s background is primarily in international development, he has had exposure to the coffee industry in his previous role while helping to negotiate trans-national trade agreements between the Dominican Republic and Central American nations, and between Colombia and the US.

Fairtrade coffee farmer

“I worked to mobilise unions, labour rights NGOs and opinion leaders. We put forward an advocacy strategy that, among others, made sure the interests, opinions and recommendations from coffee producers and workers were considered during the negotiations,” he says. “This also resulted in the allocation of resources to train workers and producers about their rights under the trade agreements, giving them a stronger voice during the implementation of those treaties.”

In 2016, Fairtrade launched a five-year plan outlining the five key strategic goals that the organisation will focus on achieving by 2020.

The plan, which has been given the title Changing Trade, Changing Lives, sets out the goals as: building benefits for smallholders and workers, deepening impact through services and programs, building Fairtrade markets, influencing government policies, and building a stronger global system.

“My main intention is for everybody in the organisation to be aligned, empowered and accountable for achieving the five goals included in the 2020 plan. It is my job to make sure that all of us work together as a strong global system in order to make the 2020 plan a reality.”

While the Fairtrade movement is now almost 30 years old, over the past decade the whole concept of certified products has gained significant traction in developed markets around the world. In fact, the concept championed by Fairtrade and its predecessors since the late 1980s is now so popular that the organisation finds itself operating in an ever more crowded marketplace, alongside other certification marks such as Utz, 4C and Fairtrade USA. Rather than being threatened by this, Soto says this is a situation which his organisation welcomes.

“We’re very happy to see that consumers are increasingly demanding transparency about where their products come from and how they are produced,” he says. “We support all efforts to address sustainability issues in global supply chains. Each certification scheme has its unique focus.”

Coffee cherries

Soto points out that according to the Fairtrade system, farmers are at the table to co-design programmes that are a priority to them. The Fairtrade Standards offer small scale producers a framework to chart their own development path.

“Fairtrade can contribute to higher or more stable household income for farmers, more savings, access to credit and less vulnerability to poverty,” he says. “Research has shown that the Fairtrade Minimum Price and Premium, an extra sum of money paid on top of the selling price, are important tools for farmers to strengthen their economic position. The Fairtrade Premium enables investments in income-boosting and production-enhancing activities.”

However, Soto says the organisation is realistic about the challenges it faces.

“There are no quick fixes to tackling inequality, creating opportunity and ending exploitation in global supply chains and no single organisation or person can achieve this on their own. Collaboration is key to delivering increasing change and better lives for farmers and workers.”

Soto says a large part of Fairtrade’s success thus far on the consumer side has been about the way it communicates its mission and provides consumers with a strong sense of being linked to the communities whose goods they are buying.

“Fairtrade is also unique in the connection we create between consumers and the Fairtrade coffee producers,” he says. “By empowering them to drive change in their communities and contribute to social and economic development.”

Soto explains that Fairtrade also requires coffee growers to organise democratically in cooperatives. These producer organisations, which Fairtrade assists its members to create, promote associative work, instill a sense of shared responsibility among their members, and give producers a stronger bargaining power in international markets. 

Soto says Fairtrade should focus on these unique features, while continuing to improve on its already successful model for coffee.  “Fairtrade is a learning organisation. We are currently carrying out a coffee living income study in seven countries with over 450 households so we can better understand the income situation of small-scale coffee farmers.

“Additionally, Fairtrade is starting to revise its Standard for Small Producer Organisations this year in order to further strengthen small-scale farmer organisations,” he says. “To do so we need to be innovative. We also need to consider enhancing the benefits received by coffee growers.” GCR

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