Look beyond the label When you want to help out ThirdWorld farm workers, it would be wise not to have a “Fairtrade” breakfast — or forthat matter anything else labelled “Fairtrade.
” Why? The Fairtrade label is afacade. At its best, Fairtrade is a private labelling system designed to giveconsumers confidence that someone, somewhere, is benefitting from their fairtrade latte, or artisan fair trade chocolate bar. At its worst, Fairtrade is amethod of brainwashing first-world consumers into buying overpriced productsthat do not help the poor. There is no arguing with the fact that low incomecountries need our support to put in place economic policies that work.
It issimply the case that “Fairtrade” may have started as a well-meaning concept;now it is just not good enough. You’re most likely to see theFairtrade label at a high end coffee shops or overpriced grocery stores —especially ones with a “progressive” clientele. The Fairtrade label is supposedto let you enjoy your latte without having to feel guilty for taking advantageof an exploited Ethiopian or impoverished Ecuadoran who harvested the beans.Liberal latte sippers are instead free to smile over their morning cup ofFairtrade coffee, gratified at the unimaginable impact their thoughtfullychosen beans must be bringing to poor coffee growers overseas. Oh, countlessHollywood A-Listers endorse it — but the main value it brings is the feeling ofsocially conscious, smug satisfaction to comfortable, liberal consumers. Most consumers blindly presumeFairtrade guarantees better pay for agricultural workers in developingcountries, without bothering to investigate.
The Fairtrade USA website insists,”We can change the world by changing our breakfast.” Well I beg to differ: Bychanging our breakfast, the only thing we are changing is the margin made bycompanies in the first world. In reality, the direct benefits of Fairtrade areshockingly small and rarely go to the least well-off. So, allow me to confutecommon misconceptions about fair trade.
Fairtrade is not for peopleliving in severe poverty. I hate to burst the bubble of ignorance citizens ofthe first world are living in, but Fairtrade is simply not lifting anyone outof extreme poverty. In reality, the Fairtrade movement follows a sickeninglyplutocratic logic. In order to join Fairtrade, cooperatives must meet certainquality standards, which means their farmers must be relatively well educatedand capitalised. It’s astoundingly obvious when one looks at the facts – thesefarmers are far from the impoverished Ecuadorian you picture when buying fairtrade chocolate. The majority of Fairtrade suppliers are in the middle incomebracket of developing countries, with next to none in majorly underdeveloped,poorer areas.
So think twice before taking a bite out of that Fairtradechocolate bar, or buying the fair trade bananas in your local organic foodshop. You purchase will certainly not lift anyone out of extreme poverty. In fact, you are just being dupedby yet another marketing scheme. Here is another distressingdiscovery: rules surrounding Fairtrade are not exactly based on humanitarian principles.Fairtrade consumers are lulled into a false sense of security with theknowledge that products that are fair trade have to comply with a specific setof rules. Surprise: These rules are absurd. One of the “rules” of Fairtradeproducts is that children who work on farms have to go to school; theireducation cannot be affected by work.
Splendid – after being in school for 6hours, already famished and enervated, adolescents can spend the rest of theirmiserable day doing backbreaking work on a farm, planting “Fairtrade” coffeebeans, or harvesting “ethical, Fairtrade” cocoa beans. There is a major flaw inthe system – consumers have a very different perception of what Fairtrade meansto producers. While we in the first world believe that farmers are at one withMother Nature, planting beans joyously, the reality is destitute, despondentand dispirited workers, toiling away day and night. Furthermore, the selected few farmsthat qualify for the Fairtrade label do not necessarily in any way shape orform provide a higher quality of life for farmers. These farms are seldombetter than their non Fairtrade counterparts.
In the few farms where facilitiesare better, the beneficiaries are not who you would think. In one Fairtrade teaco-operative, the modern toilets are exclusively for the use of foreign seniormanagers. Does anyone else smell the aroma of modern colonialism rather than ofethically produced coffee beans? So what isthe extra two pounds we pay for Fairtrade goods doing? Allowing already wealthysenior managers to use clean toilets? Now I feel so much better about the FairTrade coffee I drank a few days ago – itreally is going to make a difference! You can however rest assured thatthe extra money you spend on fair trade goods is actually going to farmers –they often receive a whole extra penny because of your selfless purchase. In aUK-government funded study, it was found that, “Just 10% of the premiumconsumers pay for Fairtrade actually goes to the producer.” Producers in thefirst world pocket most of this money, thus leaving the farmers that actuallyneed our help with next to nothing – a grand total of less than 1% of the priceconsumers pay. So, farmers typically receive one or two pence extra, at most,if their farms are Fairtrade.
The main concern today seems to be makingattempts (that are largely futile) to increase farmers’ wages by ludicrouslysmall amounts rather than really transforming poor communities throughdevelopment, modernisation, even industrialisation. The majority of thepopulation are sadly unaware of these unpalatable facts. There remains anenormous discrepancy between pay, conditions, and opportunity that we asfirst-world citizens would regard as acceptable, compared with those of theproducers of most Fairtrade products being bought.
Claims of Fairtrade areerroneous, inaccurate and misleading. Allow me to summarise what is occurring.Consumers are paying more for products, which do next to no good. Contrary topopular belief, it is also shockingly simple to hijack the seemingly sacrosanctterm “Fairtrade.” The majority of comfortable consumers are blissfully blind tothe fact that the UK Fairtrade symbol certifies only raw materials and not finished goods.
You can buy a T-shirt madefrom fair-trade cotton that could, in theory, have been made into a finishedarticle in a sweatshop. Unfortunately, there are no rules that stop themanufacturer advertising this as an ethical shirt; branding it with a Fairtradelogo. Consumers who think they are choosing an ethically untainted productmight actually be buying clothing sewn with child labour or finished in adangerously overheated factory. So the Fairtrade logo isdeceiving. The circle incorporates “a blue sky symbolizing optimism.” Be thatas it may, children working in sweatshops don’t typically get to see the skyfor large portions of the day, and their futures are far from optimistic.
Thelogo also contains “green for growth.” The Fairtrade movement is only nurturingthe growth of false marketing and low ethical standards in supposedly”irreproachable” farms. The Ying and Yang –esque nature of the logo suggestspeace and harmony. Third world farmers however, most likely find Fairtrade farfrom peaceful – just a method of exploiting their poverty to make consumers paymore.
Genuine fair trade should bewelcomed. It has the potential to be innovative and efficient. However, theunfettered trade that exploits the poor, that we call “Fairtrade” is basedlargely upon who can pay least to those producing our goods. This must not beaccepted as “Fair Trade.” Fairtrade makes cunning use of the almost infinitecapacity for guilt harboured by the residents of wealthy countries over thecondition of those in poorer ones.
When did educated human beings lose theability to question what they are buying? We must start looking beyond thelabel.