Is “Fair Trade” Just Another Marketing Tool?

Back when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, I used to watch the local farmers cart their freshly picked coffee beans off to the local coffee co-op. There, they exchanged the beans, and six months of hard labor (or more likely, the labor of their wives) for...well, for very little.  Because most of them were in debt to the coffee co-op for school fees, fertilizers, hardware, and other necessities even before they brought the beans there.  And then, using a formula that was indecipherable to the farmers, the people who ran the co-op calculated a payment. Which the men promptly spent on beer.  But that's another story.

The story here is that the farmers had no choice where to sell their coffee. The so-called coffee co-op dictated the price and that was the end of it.  In other words, this was NOT fair trade. The farmers were in effect indentured servants to the co-ops, which were controlled by powerful politicians on the local and national level.

That's why I was so optimistic about the Fair Trade movement.  Like a good citizen of the world I only buy Fair Trade coffee. (Mostly from CoffeeFool)  Skeptic, that I am, however, I always suspected that much of my coffee probably wasn't really fair trade. The task of certifying what is fair trade and what isn't strikes me as impossible to monitor in the conditions where most of the world's coffee is grown.

And of course there are other complications, and this excellent article by Jill Richardson in Alternet, does a nice job of laying them out.

Despite the certification program and the often intimate relationship between growers in the Global South and roasters in the Global North, it's not easy to quantify how the Fair Trade price translates into improved quality of life. Coffee comes from countries on several continents, each with its own currency and economy. Thus, a living wage in Ethiopia may not be a living wage in Peru, or vice versa.

Ultimately she concludes:

For a consumer, the choice is clear: buying Fair Trade is the way to go. However, consumers should be aware of the nuances within the Fair Trade market in order to make the most ethical choice (and hopefully enjoy some delicious coffee, too). First of all, make sure the coffee you buy is actually Fair Trade-certified, as corporations looking to undercut the Fair Trade movement will sometimes market their coffee with various ethical-sounding certifications. (For example, Sara Lee, one of the world's four major coffee buyers, markets some of its coffee as UTZ certified -- a certification with relatively weak standards.)

I agree.  If nothing else, the Fair Trade movement makes plants the idea in the Western consciousness that much of what we enjoy from the comforts of our homes is the result back-breaking labor by people caught in intolerable poverty.  I have not doubt that the Fair Trade movement has improved thousands of lives across the globe. And, it's a pretty good marketing tool as well. Fair Trade requirements need to be strengthened and standardized.  And ultimately, much of the money spent on foreign "aid" programs would be better directed to enforcing that certification.

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