Friday, October 21, 2011

Fair Trade: Priority?

As the "green" movement gains more mainstream momentum, a lot of large companies are throwing their hat in on commodities such as shea butter, coffee, chocolate and tea.  Over all, this sounds like an awesome thing, and I think it is as an idea.  However, the water quickly can get muddied on both sides.  What is market price, and who determines how far above market price should a company pay a farmer for their harvest in order to call it fair trade? How do we as consumers not end up paying unnecessary premiums because our will to do right is being taken advantage of?
I tend to buy into these buzzwords easily, and the stamp on a product does not necessarily make it better. See my post on Middlefork Roasters for this very discussion in relation to organic certification.  I do feel it is important, however, for us to understand why Fair Trade is important, and attempt to separate the bullshit from the truth, although you can never really do that.
So, fair trade. Green America defines fair trade as "Fair Trade is a system of exchange that honors producers, communities, consumers, and the environment. It is a model for the global economy rooted in people-to-people connections, justice, and sustainability." Sounds like a lot of fluff to me. But basically what they are trying to say is that the idea of fair trade is to pay producers a living wage for their products rather than paying pennies on the dollar compared to what ultimately sell the product for.
It's difficult to find information on products not coming from fair trade relationships.  In the story with coffee, it seems to demonize the commodity brokers and cuts out the profit from the traditional supply chain by allowing farmers to sell directly to co-ops or roasters.  Fair trade certification basically guarantees that farmers will receive $.05/pound above market price.  So, it's pretty easy to get on board with that, right? You feel better knowing you are supporting companies where the farmer will make more money.  I don't necessarily believe, however, that it is a permanent solution.
This article makes a great case for free trade over fair trade. Daly makes a good point that fair trade will basically create a mediocre equality that will never really pull farmers out of poverty. I do agree with this, but what she does not pose is how free trade and the practice of companies like Millstone constantly screwing the little guy is going to help them either. She basically takes an objectivist approach by saying we should only help those who can help themselves.  While she may be right about fair trade, her argument only leads me back to the political "trickle down effect argument" about how when the rich get richer it rains down to the poorer. Obviously if this were the case the rich would have stopped getting richer and the poor poorer hundreds of years ago.
So what is the answer? Fair trade isn't perfect but I do believe it's a step in the right direction. If that extra .05 cents per pound allows a man's child to go to school, isn't that development?
The best answer though, is to go back to small.  Buy from independently owned private companies, preferably local, that you have a relationship with. Buy from companies that are providing jobs in your community, disconnected from the corporate grind, and provide products that you love to have in your life and feel good about buying.