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How Fair is Fair Trade?

“Fair trade” is the latest craze in morally sustainable food. The FairTrade Foundation has, in fact, been so successful that it has expanded its horizons to fair trade handicrafts and clothes. On the surface, fair trade seems like the best idea that’s come along since the beginning of jobs being shipped overseas. It’s so maddeningly simple, it’s hard to believe no one thought of it before; the consumer deals with a small increase in prices in exchange for assurance that there isn’t blood on their hands when all they want is a chocolate bar. FairTrade certified brands promise that their particular product was brought to market through ecologically and economically sustainable methods, without the use of child or sweatshop labor, and without genetic modifications. The whole process seems so easy, there can’t be anything wrong with it, right?

Wrong.

While the FairTrade Foundation delivers on the promises it makes, these promises are not always in the best interests of the farmer. A new study released by the Institute of Economic Affairs states that the restrictions of fair trade placed on participating farmers really represent only the “whims of western consumers,” rather than the actual needs of farmers in developing countries. While we may find the idea distasteful, genetically modified foods will be required to support an exponentially growing population. The upkeep of the FairTrade Foundation and the entire certifying process are costly and, for the most part, unproven.

Part of the idea of fair trade was to reduce exploitation, when it has actually opened a window into a whole new category. Cadbury was recently criticized for switching its products to fair trade because it only switched a portion of its chocolates. Other companies in moral hot water have used the same strategy; when something negatively affects the public’s view of a business, they simply announce another FairTrade Certified product to make themselves more attractive to both activists and the general population.

And we believe the speeches that they do it because “they care.”

No company will ever embark on an endeavor because they care. Just caring doesn’t make any money for them. Companies don’t make fair trade options because they feel morally bound to do so; they use fair trade as a purely public affairs-related front. The IEA study accused FairTrade of failing its coffee farmers. The study claims that, in the past year, companies like Starbucks and Nestlé had actually done more for its producers in developing countries than the FairTrade foundation had.

That premium the consumer pays on FairTrade goods? Doesn’t that at least go straight to some poor farmer in South America? Of the $1.61 extra you pay for that dark chocolate bar with the cute panda bear on the front when you could have had a Hershey bar for $0.89, it is unlikely that the FairTrade farmers will ever see more than $0.40 of that extra money. Most of your bill goes to that very expensive management and certification process I mentioned earlier.

This isn’t to say I’m not a proponent of human rights. FairTrade has the right idea, they just aren’t going about it in the right way. In many areas, factories provide hundreds of jobs to people who would otherwise have no money with which to support their families. It is obviously very hard to object to that; it is the sweatshop conditions that many find hard to swallow.

While we don’t always feel that way, we as consumers have power. Many companies have been raising wages and living conditions for their workers, and, by spending our money with those companies, we show other businesses what we expect from them in the future. It’s a lot like the old saying “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” We need to show our opinions through our spending. By spending money with companies who support better wages and standards of living for their factory employees, rather than boycotting those who do not, we will shape the future of fair trade.



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KatsK This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jul. 14, 2012 at 7:29 am
Good point, and thanks for this. This was interesting, and I hadn't really looked into it before. which study was it? It sounds interesting.
 
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