Fair Trade?

Remarks on the Current Climate of Fair Trade & Its Realities

Contrary to organizations involved in fair trade who will claim that benefits trickle down, critics have made claims that the money goes in to the pockets of middlemen and retailers. This was recently reported on by Jennifer Alsever of the New York Times in the article titled “Fair Prices for Farmers: Simple Idea, Complex Reality“. For those of us that spend our time with producers and farmers, this is not news.

It certainly has an important meaning for the consumers that deeply care for the well being of the third world laborers providing us with our tea, coffee, and other agricultural products. I’m sure that even for some of the companies that retail these products care about this issue more than for just marketing reasons. Does the extra money that we pay for Fair Trade Certified products actually go to the people on the ground that we are trying to protect with our socially responsible consumerism?

One thing is for sure. The certifying agency is certainly making money, and these products are easier to sell at higher prices. So what do those of us that prefer to make a statement through our purchases do? I think we need to ask more questions. Who pays for the certification? How do we know that the individuals working for these Fair Trade certified producers are actually being helped? It is probably easier to see when we look at a big company that owns plantations and clearly exploits the third world workers. ‘That practice is unacceptable, pay your workers better, and we will certify your company.’ However, this is not the way it works most of the time. The producers are small or are cooperatives that are struggling to compete with the big companies. It is a stretch for them to pay for certification, whether organic and Fair Trade. Does a little bit of extra money really improve the lives of the workers as much as a school or good medical care? And who has the responsibility for the living and working conditions of the workers? With the farmers paying migrants, with the third world producers paying farmers, with the traders in the middle between the brokers, wholesalers, and retailers? How does Fair Trade Certification answer that? Who really benefits and how by by getting certified?

I think most of the people buying these products assume that the benefactor is the person at the beginning of the supply chain. Perhaps as socially responsible people we need to look at more than just the logo.