In a massive grocery superstore, clinical in character, housing any product your heart desires to purchase, you can find them. They sit on one of the hundreds of shelves, pressed in between a few of the thousand of products. The packaging looks relatively similar to all the other products except in one of the corners a small symbol with the words ‘fairtrade certified’ can be found.
In Canada, fair trade products include Coffee, Tea, Cocoa, Cotton, Flowers, Fruit, Grains, Spices and Herbs, Nuts and Oils, Sports Balls, Sugar and Wine (http://transfair.ca/en/products/products-canada). According to TransFair Canada, fair trade “seeks to change the terms of trade for the products we buy – to ensure the farmers and artisans behind those products get a better deal. Most often this is understood to mean ensuring better prices for producers, but it often also includes longer-term and more meaningful trading relationships” (http://transfair.ca/ en/about-fairtrade/what-fair-trade).
Fair trade products, in particularly coffee and tea have become a popular purchase. Corporate chains such as Starbucks, Tim Hortons and Second Cup often offer a brand of fair trade products, while grocery stores provide consumers with the opportunity to choose from a few brands. Would you like to support Ethiopian, Ecuadorian or Columbian farmers through your purchase? In North American grocery stores, you get to choose. While many consumers may not know the fine details of what fair trade entails, they understand it as a more ethical purchase, with benefits going to the ‘third world’.
An article in The Economist titled ‘ How Fair is It?’ reviews a piece from the New York Times on fair trade. An excerpt from this article illustrates the ambiguity and potential negative consequences of fair trade:
‘It seems like a lovely idea. Conscientious consumers are willing to pay more for goods produced in what is viewed as a less exploitative manner. But how well does the model hold up in practice? Dani Rodrik notes a few inconsistencies. He points out that fair-trade products often sell at no markup in retail stores, a matter explained away by retailers who claim they’ve achieved efficiency gains with fair-trade producers, allowing them to pay more for the product and still maintain their profit margins. Mr Rodrik continues:
Now, which one of us really know what “fair trade” certification is really getting us when we consume a product with that label? The market-based principle animating the movement is based on the idea that consumers are willing to pay something extra for certain social goals they value. But clearly there is an opaqueness in what the transaction is really about. And who gets to decide what the “long list of rules” should be, if not the consumer herself?
Consider some of the requirements that the fair trade purchaser imposes. The Brazilian coffee farmer mentioned in the NYT story above has to make sure that his children are enrolled in school. Wait a minute, the economist in you should say. Isn’t the farmer himself a better judge of how his extra income should be spent? Should these decisions be made by Starbucks instead? (http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2007/10/is_it_fair)
There have been various critiques of fair trade, especially regarding the idea of a wholly positive purchasing option. The examination by Rodrick of fair trade products, questions the public’s awareness of what fair trade actually entails. While the fair trade debate is extensive and only a surface level examination can be offered in this blog post, I’d like to examine a few issues I find pressing.
I have often engaged in debates regarding consumerism as a means to ‘development’. The idea that North Americans can purchase goods to save one African child or to improve the livelihood of farmers overseas is interesting or perhaps a better adjective is irritating. The problem I have with purchasing as ‘development’ is the disconnect from the issues that are supposedly being addressed. You can purchase a hotly brewed coffee and contribute to a farmer in Bolivia’s community, you can buy a RED t-shirt and help eradicate AIDS in Africa or you can sponsor a child in Bangldesh for one dollar a day and improve her/his life (which you will get updates of through cute letters and pictures of her/his beautiful face).
What is lacking from these various scenarios is any debate regarding this notion of development and the construction of the ‘third world’ it promotes. If your engagement with ‘development’ ends after you have handed over your credit card, what understanding of the so-called issues have you gained? Development as consumerism is not conducive to knowledge transfer, as you are able to ‘help’ without too much thought about who you are helping. I believe the consequences of this may be devastating. If we know nothing about the people, communities or nations we are supposedly helping, and only know that these products cost more than non-fair trade ones to help someone, somewhere, what happens during times of economics crisis? NGOs were some of the organizations most impacted during the recent economic crisis. When finances become tight, why would individuals purchase goods that are more expensive? If individuals merely have an abstract idea that they are helping eradicate poverty, when their bank balances are drying up, this may not be a good enough reason.
An assumption underlying fair trade is that it is within the realm of consumerism that development should be situated. In North American society, all can be purchased. Self-esteem can be purchased through the newest makeup product or plastic surgery procedure, elite status can be purchased through a designer bag clearly marked with two large C’s and now the feeling that you have eradicated poverty can be purchased in your local store. This occupation with the assertion that making purchases is the only means for everyday citizens to be involved with the ‘third world’ has pervaded development thought and thus materialized in our understanding of development as consumerism.
I believe what is needed, rather than a conversation regarding how we can make fair trade more widespread, is an examination of the implications of fair trade. What message does fair trade disseminate regarding the ‘third world’ and understandings of development? What role does consumerism occupy in North Americans’ understanding of poverty eradication? I think more thought must be given to the forms in which development takes in the ‘first world’ beginning with this idea of development as consumerism. I hope to address this issue more extensively in future blog posts.