How Fair Trade Hurts Everyone from International Policy to Your Plate
Fair trade is everywhere on campus. Valentine’s Day was no exception.
Valentine's Day this year came with guilt free, “ethical” chocolate. Apparently, our sweet and chocolaty desires fueled a civil war in the
At the Claremont Colleges, fair trade is nothing new. All of the dining halls boast their local, organic, and fresh produce and fair trade coffee
These measures seek to solve the world’s problems at once: global warming, hunger, poverty, civil war – you name it. The buzz words ‘Locally Grown’, ‘Organic’ ‘Fresh’ and of course, ‘Fair Trade’ are bandied about interchangeably. But what exactly do they mean? Why should we embrace Fair Trade?
To answer this question, we headed to the bastion of progressivism – the Motley. The Motley, run by Scripps students since 1974, seeks “an ongoing process of empowering change.”
But just what kind of change?
The Motley, an “alternative space,” “open and welcoming to all,” seeks to serve its community, according to its mission statement. To achieve that goal, they support “fair trade.” A sticker from Oxfam on the refrigerator encourages customers to “make trade fair.”
What’s wrong with trade as it is?
Motley Manager, Sophie Herron ’08 started by defining free trade for us: “free trade is based on free and unrestricted trade between countries with as low barriers, tariffs and overheads as possible. This means that in countries where the economy is not good, workers are not paid a reasonable wage.”
Ms. Herron then told us about all of the efforts to buy locally-grown produce.
The local, in her eyes, is better. When it can, the Motley buys locally, but coffee and chocolate aren’t typically grown in
“Fair trade,” Herron explained, “is when trade is fair because the people providing the goods are receiving wages that they can afford to live on and support their community.”
A paradox lies at the heart of her definition: buying locally means not buying from poor farmers abroad, whose income the Motley seeks to raise. And yet, paying those workers more for their produce creates surpluses in the market and drives down prices.
Think about a factory worker in
NGOs demanded a higher price for bananas to help raise the cost of living for the
Why do so many continue calling for more fair trade? For businesses, the results can be enticing.
The Organic, Local, Fresh, Fair-Trade buzz has been on the rise lately. Businesses that cater to this food trendiness can often make big bucks and say to be promoting “corporate social responsibility.”
David Janosky, Sodexo General Manager of Dining and Catering Services, endorsed this path soon after his arrival at
Student government, particularly
Although Janosky said that he doesn’t think
Now that they know fair trade hurts the people it is intended to help, maybe
Back at the Motley, Herron described how managers decide what policies to pursue. Most businesses, such as Sodexo, respond to customer demands if the costs aren’t too prohibitive, but the Motley, a non-profit, uses its platform to promote its politics.
The management, for example, decided to stop selling Vitamin Water and Naked Juice after they were acquired by Coca Cola and Pepsi Co, respectively. The transaction meant that these products could not be sold on campus since the two giants were obviously not family-owned or local, fresh, organic and fair.
The students, on the other hand, liked these two products. “We try to take the customer in our community really seriously,” says Herron. “They are one of the main things we are thinking really seriously about.”
As well they should. After all, the Motley is subsidized by both the federal government and
These advantages mean that they can undercut local coffee shops, like the Starbucks on
Maybe that’s why starting Starbucks employees make $8.50 an hour compared to only $8.00 an hour for students who start on Work Study. Starbucks offers more benefits, too. At Starbucks, if you work more than twenty hours a week, you get twenty hours of paid vacation as well as full benefits, including vision, and dental. Starbucks, which must compete with other coffee shops for the best barista must have competitive wages. After all they don’t get tax exemptions or subsidies.
So why are these establishments willing to spend more money for fresh, organic, local and fair produce? That these policies do good, remains unchallenged on campus. Indeed, it is being celebrated in
But ensuring whether or not these policies help people is beyond the Motley’s means.
As Sophie Herron of the Motley concedes, “We have no way of verifying whether the trade is actually fair.”
She’s right. It’s nearly impossible to monitor these activities, especially with such large degrees of separation between us and the actual producers in the global coffee market. If there is no way to verify whether or not fair trade works, why conclude that free trade doesn’t work? The same degrees of separation should apply.
Why replace tried and tested economic models for something that has no concrete evidence? After all, Free Trade, not Fair Trade liberated millions from poverty in
A condensed version of this article will appear in The Claremont Independent.