How ‘fair’ is fair trade?

"A Cup Full of Hope Cup Sleeves" by Ivan Blackshear is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0
“A Cup Full of Hope Cup Sleeves” by Ivan Blackshear is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0

Happy New Year! 2020 symbolizes many new beginnings for people. 2020 is new year, a new decade, and many a milestone (e.g., 100th anniversary of US women’s suffrage, the 75th anniversary of the United Nations). It’s also the year I’m reviving this blog (once again). Reflecting on the last decade and the ups and downs I faced, I noticed that having a space to writing, think, and create has been central to my “up” periods; conversely, when I was “down,” I was writing/creating much less. It may simply be a correlation, (or the result of the “up/down” period) but I suspect that having some tangible product that I’ve created helps me feel more accomplished, which in turn encourages me to do more, which in turn moves me “up” in the ways I value, in order to become a better version of myself. Moreover, just the simple act of putting my thoughts onto paper helps me organize them, which allows me to chart my process and see if/where/how I’ve grown in knowledge and understanding. It’s part of the reason why diaries and journaling endure: it’s a snapshot of who we are at a particular moment in time. So, here’s to a new era of many more written pieces, creations, and “ups”.

To start, I’m reposting a great article I came across from The Christian Century of all places. The piece, What does a fair trade logo actually mean? takes a critical, unvarnished look at the state of fair trade today, nearly 30 years after the movement started. The verdict? fair trade has failed to live up to its promise. I was aware that a lot of what’s sold as fair trade is really markup that ends up profiting companies of the Global North and doesn’t necessarily help poor, exploited people of the Global South. The article confirms what I already knew, though added more to my knowledge about the history of the various fair trade labels and the early religious undercurrent that buoyed the movement.

Our culture prefers lauding charitable claims over measuring the results.

The idea that a single economic tweak could upend the global economy and reverse the powerful desire to exploit for maximum profit is wishful thinking, so it’s a bit unfair to expect any movement, even the fair trade movement, to end poverty. Not to mention, the promise of the fair trade movement is undermined by the complex dynamics of international trade. Isolated, small-scale farmers; distribution channels; limited markets; licensing fees; shifting certification standards; complex supply chains; and changing consumer tastes are but a part of the full picture. The article references Karl Marx who said that capitalism would alienate consumers from producers by commodifying the goods buyers acquire, thereby making it easier to overlook (or ignore) the exploitation of producers. Fair trade is intended to tap into consumers’ empathy by certifying that the producers were paid fairly for their labor, and thereby reconnect consumers to producers. The fair trade has definitely tapped consumer empathy: global sales of fair trade products was almost $9.2 billion in 2017 and generated fair trade premiums of more than $193 million. I think this part of the closing paragraph says it best: “Our culture prefers lauding charitable claims over measuring the results. Churches that have built the fair trade movement should also account for the gap between its vision and its accomplishments.”

Money is the root of all evil, as the saying goes, but money makes the world go ‘round. The fair trade movement has been a 30-year exercise in trying to do a bit of good with an un-good tool. Fair trade intentions are noble, but the results have been mixed. Proponents needs to revisit the aims of the fair trade movement and be brave enough to change what isn’t working if we truly want it to benefit the Global South.

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