Fair Trade’s Growing Pains

Back in the UK for a few meetings and some flat hunting, I’ve been experiencing first hand the way that Fair Trade has become a mass consumer movement over here in the few years since I left. As a long-time supporter of fair trade it’s gratifying to see such a plethora of products readily accessible, but a discussion at my parents’ church this weekend also got me thinking about the trade-offs involved in such a movement going mainstream.

Several years ago, your average fair trade coffee drinker was a committed activist relatively well-versed in the outline of global finance and reading stories about (or even visiting) the producers of the coffee in their mug. That was a fundamental component of the fair trade approach. Since the industrial revolution we have become increasingly detached from the food (and other) systems that bring us what we need to survive, and since World War II (as globalisation of such consumption has really taken hold) few of us have had any real connection with those systems. Fair trade didn’t do much to re-localise those systems, but it did try and foster understanding of and involvement in them.

Once the fair trade label becomes a commodity, those relationships once again begin to break down. There is still a core—quite possibly a significantly larger one#8212;of supporters who will seek to be engaged in the systems of production that fair trade works through, but there is a much larger grouping that are simply making an isolated consumer decision. It’s arguably a better consumer decision as the money is more equitably distributed, and it may model better practice for businesses that support a sustainable standard of living, but it still doesn’t address the core problem that in a globalised society we need new ways of connecting production and consumption.

This issue is, to my mind, more fundamental than the political change that also needs to follow from fair trade if it is to have any serious impact. Political change can begin to undo the injustice that is currently sewn into the fabric of global trade, and perhaps to address the significant distortions and inefficiencies introduced when IMF advice to developing countries not only pushed them towards an unsustainable emphasis on cash crops, but also to a reliance on the same cash crop (compare the collapse in the price of coffee with the timeframe in which such advice was given to see how disastrous such intervention was). Political change can begin to redress the balance, but building a more sustainable approach cannot occur purely on a political level.

Financial markets can, at their best, do a decent job of representing a certain monetary value placed on goods and services, but their models are rife with externalities, concerns which are not accounted for in the price. Whether that be the carbon or other environmental impact of the production process, the human conditions of the workers, or the social impact of that particular mode of production. We can begin to address that with carbon taxes, clearer labelling, and other structures but none of them will be sufficient, and at some point consumers run out of time to examine every label of every product.

To resolve the situation we need a combination of methodologies: new rules for global trade are vital, at the very least to level the playing field, but also to provide protection for nascent or fragile economies; clearer information for consumers to enable us to at least have a rough idea of what the implications of our purchases are; taxes which take into account not just capital flows but also resource usage. Most vital is real engagement in the systems of production and consumption of which we are a part.

I’m hesitant to make a full throated call for entirely local economies. When a true price is derived, with all the social and environmental factors included, locally produced food is often the most responsible choice, but we also have a responsibility to producers in other countries who are dependent on the west for markets. Besides, there is nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy the products of those cultures if we do so in moderation and are striving to find technologies that will make shipping them much less of an environmental misstep.

For a few years I’ve been trying to weigh up whether I want to place more emphasis in my thinking on farmers’ markets or on fair trade. I’m not going to abandon fair trade, but as time goes on I’m realising that the human connection of farmers’ markets is probably a much more powerful long-term investment than the ability to pick a label marked ‘fair trade.’ If we get the local connections right, perhaps that will show us how to make the global ones a bit better?

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