FairtTrade is Fair Enough

However cynical, petty, ideological and pathetically out-of-date it may be, the attack by right-wing “think-tanks” on fair trade just won’t go away.

As most coffee-drinkers know, Fairtrade (and its new competitor Rainforest Alliance) are dedicated to increasing the ethical footprint of western consumers by encouraging them to buy products that offer a better deal to those in the developing world who make them. In essence, fair trade schemes ask us to pay more for things we are told have been farmed in a sustainable way by workers protected by International Labor Organisation conventions.

Implicit in the very project of ethical consumerism is a critique of the way we currently do business when it comes to global trade, and the values that underlie the free trade ideal.

No wonder Tim Wilson, from the free market Institute of Public Affairs, is pursed lipped. In an interview on ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing Wilson claimed to be worried that consumers buying fair trade products were being duped “Developed country consumers are buying these products with the expectation that the right thing is being done by them and the developing world producers, and that isn’t always occurring.”

The problems to which Wilson refers are ones that no one, most notably Fairtrade officials and advocates, deny. Namely, that Fairtrade isn’t perfect, and that one consequence of its imperfection can be a disconnect between what consumers are promised for the premium they pay, and what is delivered. For example, an investigation a few years ago by the UK’s Financial Times, found that some fair trade farmers were not paying their labour the legal minimum wage, though these workers were getting 25% more than those picking coffee on conventional farms.

In an article on the IPA website, Wilson suggests that on the evidence of history, such problems are without remedy. “The International Coffee Agreement operated for most of the Cold War period to help developing world coffee producers lift themselves out of poverty. It was a monumental failure.”

Elsewhere he contends that even if fair trade could be made to work, there is little reason to bother, because free trade provides all the equity and justice this world needs: “Free trade has…worked for many, many years now…The fairest outcome [results] from a system where prices are set by the marketplace.”

Yeah, and pigs fly. Throughout history an unregulated market has brought us gross disparities of wealth, corruption, child labour and sweatshops. As that screaming left-winger Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, conceded in a recent speech, it has also delivered the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

The IPA has long been funded by the major corporates: BHP-Billiton, Monsanto, Caltex and Gunns to name a few. Businesses that have done well from existing trade conditions and would like to see them roll on. We’re still waiting for Peruvian coffee-growers to fund a think-tank. The IPA’s objections to ethical consumerism are vested and ideological, in other words, not a response to the occasional promise/reality gap that the fair trade movement is working hard to fix.

It is easy for self-serving cynics to drain our idealism. Easy to make us feel that however good our intentions and however much we try, there is nothing we can do to make the world a fairer place. So we might as well just shut up and shop.

Don’t believe the hype. While it’s neither enough nor perfect, ethical consumerism is better than business-as-usual. Drink your coffee, join the movement and keep the faith.

Publication history

FairtTrade is Fair Enough  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)