I understand fair trade’s appeal. It’s like buying popcorn from cub scouts, you pay a bit more for something than you would otherwise and you support a good cause at the same time.
But in reality fair trade is even worse than the “buying-stuff-as-a-donation” model. At least in cub scout circumstance, the messages are clear: Industrious kids working to impress you into pitching in for their cause (and you get a snack with your warm fuzzies). With fair trade, the message is entirely different: “Because normal market mechanisms have failed, buy this product to preserve justice.” It’s not just a donation, it’s a righteous act.
And that’s what bothers me about fair trade. It is the self-righteousness that the fair trade marketers are appealing to in their customers. Certainly not all fair trade coffee drinkers are self-righteous. My hope is–and I’d give even odds–that most think of it more like cub scouts popcorn. However, the question of justice in determining wages isn’t one as simple as buying more expensive coffee.
Before continuing, let me note as others have said on this topic before me, “We need to be vigilant against exploitative labor practices and slave labor, and for this the Fair Trade movement should be commended.”
However, the fair trade promise is a false hope. Here is a laundry list of reasons:
1) Fair trade pits the poor against the poor. As the Acton Institute’s Michael Miller explains, “[O]nly certain ‘Fair Trade Certified’ farmers receive higher prices for their beans. This means that other farmers in the area find it harder to compete.”
2) Fair trade encourages the poor to stay in an unproductive market. Economist Paul Collier argues that fair trade effectively ensures that people “get charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty.”
3) Fair trade doesn’t deal with the real source of low wages. Exploitative labor practices may have a real negative impact on wages, but they aren’t responsible for the lion’s share of wage levels in the coffee industry. It is simple supply and demand. As the success of chains like Starbucks created a new demand for premium coffee, suppliers responded by producing more coffee. Acton’s Jordan Ballor reports, “From 1995 to 2002, according to CoffeeResearch.org and the International Coffee Organization, Brazil increased coffee exports by more than 200 percent.”
These arguments have been rehashed many times before by authors far more expert than myself, but for some reason the realities of fair trade never stick to it. Fair trade continues to be successful. Andrew Chambers at The Guardian reported on December 12th that Nestle was adding a fair trade logo to its Kit Kat bars in the UK.
It is funny that the use of fair trade by major corporations might eventually cause activists to sour on it. My guess is that few fair trade champions know that Starbucks is the world’s largest buyer of fair trade coffee.
Perhaps I will buy fair trade coffee when I can get it at Wal-Mart (Fun side project: Go search Walmart.com for “fair trade”). That’ll be a sure sign that this false hope for change will have run its course.
Adam D’Luzansky lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.