Mirror, mirror

by CarlD

I’ve been trying to figure out the deeper logic of ‘fair trade’ bananas, coffee, etc.; certified organics; Priuses (Prii?) and other obviously righteous consumer responses to the world’s many injustices.

Right on the spot they make loads of sense. Fair, organic, green, check. My confusion comes from tracking them back as attempts to subvert the destructive exploitativeness of the free market. I’m not clear on how they can do that. These alternatives are expensive. For example fair trade coffee, by definition, costs more than unfair trade coffee. According to the logic of the market this makes it a luxury niche commodity. It may be ‘worth it’ for two basic reasons: because a happy worker grows better coffee, and/or because morally pure coffee ‘tastes’ better than the exploitative kind. So far, so good I guess.

But where’d that extra money come from to spend on the version of the commodity deluxified by fairness? Given the core/periphery asymmetries of the global economy, in which billions of people can’t afford daily coffee at all, the answer would seem to me to track back to exploitation no matter what. We have the money to buy coffee ‘fairly’ only because we’re playing the buy low-sell high game well somewhere else in the economy. So who’s getting screwed to make us feel better about our caffeine fix?


3 Responses to “Mirror, mirror”

  1. Coffee is a big topic and some of the other “ethical consumption” elements you’re thinking about are quite different from one another. Sure, they’re targeting the same group of people (let’s call them “co-op people”) and have the same effects on these people (feeling good about their consumption patterns). But they take part in very different dimensions of the free market economy.
    Going back to coffee, the launchpad for “fair trade.”
    You say: “fair trade coffee, by definition, costs more than unfair trade coffee.” Not necessarily. In terms of costs, FT is just a “price floor.” IIRC, it was set at 1.27$ a pound, of which farmers may get something like 12¢. By contrast, some coffee crops in the Cup of Excellence auctions got as high as 45$ a pound, directly to the farmer. And it’s not necessarily certified by the FTO. (It usually is fairer in real terms, but it’s not certified.)
    Because of the way the FT system has been implemented, some of the best coffee plantations in the world cannot be certified FT. For instance, at coffee harvest, it’s quite common in several communities to do a big festival with the whole village involved. Including children. According to the FT rules, it counts as “child labor” so the farms cannot get certified as being FT. Even though this way of doing things has been quite common in different parts of the world and is radically different from child exploitation through sweatshops.
    FT also works through huge coops. They can be really nice, in so many ways, but they also restrict a lot of what can happen in individual farms. In some cases, the effect has been to take power away from farmers and put it into the hands of people who are almost like administrators. Coffee still goes through big exporters and importers, adding intermediaries in the process. Direct relationship coffee eliminates several intermediaries and can thereby make a difference in farmers’ lives quite directly (giving much more money to those who need it than FT does).
    A broad issue about FT coffee is that it treats coffee like a mere commodity. Sure, you usually pay more for organic fair-trade beans than you would for coffee coming from the Big Four ( Nestlé, Sara Lee, Kraft, and Procter & Gamble). But you don’t necessarily get better quality coffee. Coffee is still perceived as a source of caffeine, not as a source of pleasure.
    Comparisons with wine are common and they do help. Well-crafted wine brings more revenue to a community than the typical cash crop. Also, more can be done on-site instead of having most of the processing done in the buying market. In North America, wine is perceived as sophisticated and noble, as if its alcohol content didn’t matter. Normal consumption is deemed reasonable. In North America, people are usually quite responsible at wine drinking. Wine isn’t controlled for price the same way “fair trade coffee” is. But it usually works quite well for the producers.
    In other words, “fair trade” has become a component of “free trade” and, in some ways, an efficient way to get people who believe in free market (consciously or not) to feel good about themselves.
    Sure, I sound cynical. But when you come down to it, the transformative/disruptive power is in the hands of local producers, not in the minds of foreign consumers.

  2. Thanks! This is much more than I knew, but seems consistent on the demand side with what I was saying. Ignorence is bliss.

    On the supply side I’m sympathetic to the argument about where the power is. But in a getting-certain-outcomes kind of way there’s not much of it anywhere (or there’s lots of it everywhere cancelling out, Foucault might say). Demand will find its supply. And selective purchasing pressures may create desirable niches, but they may also harden undesirable relations in other sectors. I guess I think we ought to try to act well, but my sense of the paradox of unintended consequences is strong. The systems are big and wicked complex.


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