OPINION: Fair trade, unfair trade-off

Last Friday was World Fair Trade Day and this week is, locally, Fairtrade Coffee Week. Sure, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, but is it more about superficially soothing one’s conscience or genuinely supporting fair trade? How do consumers know fair trade is really all that fair? Daily Maverick commentator, Ivo Vegter, does some digging – and decides fair trade coffee just isn’t his cup of tea.

“Coffee with a conscience”, states a recent headline over an article about Fairtrade Coffee Week. The implication is clear: if you don’t buy coffee with a fair trade label, you don’t have a conscience.

But what if “fair” trade isn’t that fair? The idea behind it is to certify small producers and co-operatives in terms of how well they pay employees and follow “sustainable” production standards. Once they qualify for the label, consumers in the developed world are informed by means of a fair trade label that their purchase decisions don’t exploit third-world workers or harm the environment.

But what if I want to support small farmers who are not part of the protectionist cartel dreamed up by Western do-gooders? What if I believe that competition is good for society as a whole, and choose to do business with the supplier that can meet my needs at the lowest possible price? What if I prefer to do business with a large corporation that employs thousands, rather than an inefficient co-operative that only employs a few people?

Does this reflect badly on my conscience? Is this a moral failing on my part?

I reject the implication that I’m somehow evil for consciously avoiding “fair trade” labels, no matter the packaging.

“The FAIRTRADE Label is recognised and trusted,” claims the website of Fairtrade Label South Africa, which appears to be the nascent local chapter of the global movement.

Really? Then why did Fair Trade USA publicly split from Fairtrade International last year, claiming that the global group was hampering the growth of sales and unfairly excluding larger producers that did meet ethical business standards?

Why have critics of fair trade labelling been complaining for years that very few producers in fact benefit from the practice? At the last count, according to Fairtrade International itself, there were fewer than 1,000 qualifying producers worldwide.

Why do critics such as Marc Sidwell and Peter Griffiths note that most of the premium charged for fair trade products actually ends up in the pockets of corporate retailers, and only a small fraction – if any at all – even reaches developing countries, let alone the poor producers who consumers are told they’re supporting?…..

Daily Maverick: Read the full article