From Fair to Conscious Trade ~ Systems Thinking Evolves a Movement

It’s not new news that our modern food system is volatile and has become increasingly so since just the turn of this century. Water is the new oil of our lifetime. Degradated soil threatens to create new dust bowls and dramatically lessen base fertility.

Commodities have become the spine of our modern supply chains, with cheap, mass-produced crops providing the filler of exponential foodstuffs, massively compromising human nutrition. To compound insult to injury, our global financial systems use this dominance to profiteering advantage, speculating on the very things that create substance for life on earth to thrive.

Despite the challenges we face ahead, many of which we have caused or escalated, the horizon does not have to be doom and gloom. We often witness amazing creativity and beautiful resilience of the human spirit, especially catalyzed through connection when complexity and constraints arise.

And complex challenges particular to food are nothing new. Cultures and nations across eras have faced moments in history where the responses posited by their decision making has affected generations, if not the fate of their existence.

Rise and fall narratives aside, we have seen an upswell of more intentional decision-making begin to positively infuse our food system in recent decades. Pioneered by forward thinking and at times disruptive companies in responsive industries. We have watched fair trade begin as a seedling of change and since come to create shifts across sectors. Its focus to incorporate food was cued by the rise of commodity agriculture, a reply in witness to the grave impacts on previously unrecognized producers and their communities across the globe.

Like any movement, fair trade has ebbed and flowed with the times, as strengths tend to follow trends. Though it still provides key alternatives from conventional and intervenes in foundational financial equations, the playing field of fair trade has become increasingly political with rifts and splits fracturing an already small yet brave voice speaking to the larger commercialized world.

Additionally, the profit diverted by fair trade is rarely traced back to the actual hands that labored to cultivate the crop. Often benefits are received on a community or cooperative level, still of value and ensuring entrenched anonymity for small-scale farmers. Daunting challenges such as certification costs across a myriad of options in addition to fair trade slash already thin margins and escalate the barriers to small producers receiving an authentic and just wage for their efforts.

Enter direct trade. This alternative arose from the qualms with the reach of fair trade. For premiums to truly reach the farmer, those engaged in the market recognized tenants such as trade negotiation and quality incentives would be necessary, as would be barring, until recently, the cost of certification expense.

Coffee has been the forerunner of this advance, vouching for communication, transparency and authenticity, with the “Third Wave” “Big Three” to thank: Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture. What began as marginal is now mainstream, with that industry recognizing and responding across the board.

So what’s next? What’s now? Cue conscious trade, creating the possibility for a new system of trade to arise from leverage points presented by the decay of our current state and in credit to the groundbreaking work preceding us that has plowed the way for further change to emerge and thrive. The urgency that drives our passion to see this shift manifest is tangible and ingrained in the essence of a new generation rising to the ranks of consumer choice and industry influence.

We have been born into the era where the Starbucks on every corner is starting to acknowledge ethics and we have watched the ripples of conflict chocolate give rise to the birth of the bean-to-bar convergence. We not only witness but strive to live in the power of our choices, through our purchases and lifestyles. We are hungry for action and real life engagement. We believe in our power to transcend paradigms and see systems shift in our lifetimes.

The roots of conscious trade are deep in systems thinking. Forward thinker Donella Meadows outlined a series of leverage points to enact true systems change. Through these foundational principles in the coming weeks we will explore the potential for conscious trade to spearhead transcendent change. The fundamental realignment this will require is at the heart of Yellow Seed’s mission to see the world nourished through a web of small agro-ecological farmers.

We’ve seen technology have powerful influence over the course of our modern food system with dramatic results. Just as the rise of railroads led to stockyard based meatpacking, so did highway transit equal our acceptance of an appetite for factory farming. WWII infrastructure was repurposed into our current industrialized efficiency and we welcomed King Corn home to our dinner tables in innumerable forms.

We believe we can flip this power on its head and see appropriately applied technology to be particularly effective through biomimicry – a positive game changer. Choice will have to lead the way though. This has tipped scales in various directions in our recent narrative. Organic certification largely trumped the revolutionary potential of biodynamic via policy precedence. As organic has proliferated and been increasingly questioned, readiness is prevalent for the “beyond organic” that whole systems thinking such a biodynamic provides.

Sustainable agriculture has made leaps and bounds in recognizing whole life cycle impacts of our food system, beginning to understand supply chains as value chains with complex interactions. All these indicators have paved the way for this next leap to conscious trade, a new paradigm of defining value chains by the forms or flows of value they contain and cultivate.

Value beyond the vogue norm of triple purpose consideration can create a transformative framework for seeing eight forms of capital as the architecture for decision-making. Assets come to life in forms beyond financial to include living, cultural, experiential, intellectual, spiritual, social and material. To see these illuminated and catalyzed is the true potential of trade and development, creating conditions for systems to thrive and flourish through their interactions, just as they do in the natural world.

So what is conscious trade and where do you fit in? By definition:


 adjective \ˈkän(t)-shəs\

: awake and able to understand what is happening around you

: aware of something (such as a fact or feeling) : knowing that something exists or is happening

: known or felt by yourself

The model we are creating is systems-centric, making visible first and foremost. What we implement is illuminating and empowering, providing voice and choice. With us it’s personal, based in connection and relationships above all else. We want you to know your context, see your place in the system, know what is possible and know where you have personal agency within that possibility.

Maybe that’s as a consumer leveraging your choice through purchasing power of the end product and enjoying the taste of place with integrity. How can you help be a voice for that authenticity to reach your sphere of influence? Perhaps as a producer, buying product to amplify the beauty of your craft, you seek peace around sourcing and assurance of the highest quality. How might you share best practices to raise the bar for your industry colleagues? Possibly you have influence over funds that already create positive impact in agriculture. How could you use that flow of value to create ripples for other forms of capital to be amplified?

With the complex web of our food system being pulled closer to home through a renewed understanding of impact and prevalent hunger for action, the sparks of a new paradigm await us. We’ve seen these embers in local models such as the proliferation of CSAs, birthed from applying biodynamic cultivation to financial principles, and the evolution of Slow Money in recent years. Conscious trade follows the continuum of CSR as the progressive mandate to the necessity of Porter and Kramer’s CSV and implementing collective impact as the basis for strategy.

Yellow Seed is a young startup, striving to be a lean, learning organization at that. Our vision is lofty and our ambitions are large. The time is now and the present is poised for the tide to turn the world towards a reality of cooperative agency. Lend your voice and join us as we begin with small tests and iterate forward to clarity. Our future of food depends on a paradigm shift, and our future depends on your role in that wave. We invite you to dip in a toe or dive in head first – let’s get swimming!

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  1. Pingback: Happy Earth Day – lets join in conscious trade | Cacao for a Cause

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