I have, on many occasions, entertained the idea of playing host to intelligent beings from elsewhere in the Universe, who came in peace to learn about our planet. I imagine being asked the following questions, and already I am composing answers in my head: What do Earthlings need the most to survive? Food. How do you obtain food? Some of our people take them from the land and the sea. Who are they? The farmers and the fisherfolk.
They would probably ask to be brought to our farmers and fisherfolk for a courtesy call, under the impression that they are the most powerful Earthlings. At this point I will be struggling to explain one of the greatest ironies of human ways: The people who bring food to our tables are some of the poorest people in the world.
Here we are in the 21st century, possessing remarkable knowledge of food production, and yet failing to ease hunger particularly among farmers and fisherfolk. Across the globe, they belong to the most marginalized sectors of society, living on incomes below the poverty standard, and in the most humble dwellings too.
The "alternative" framework
Enter Fairtrade, whose advocates present as an alternative trade framework. On their website, Fairtrade International argues that the concept is based on a partnership between producers and consumers, and that when farmers can sell on Fairtrade terms, it provides them with “a better deal and improved terms of trade,” and “the opportunity to improve their lives and plan for their future.”
Fairtrade International is the organization that set the Fairtrade standards for ethical trade. Today, it upholds standards for small producers, for hired labor, for contract production, for traders, and for the climate.
In essence, these aim to promote socially, economically, and environmentally sound production and trade practices: Fairtrade-certified organizations are supposed to champion good working conditions, equitable profit distribution, fair and transparent trade practices, and sustainability. All lofty standards we should aspire for, without question.
The costs of Fairtrade
Being and buying Fairtrade-certified both come with a price, however. On the production side, becoming certified means going through the lengthy and stringent audit process, and putting in more resources towards sustainable practices. Relatedly, some are concerned that this process only furthers the marginalization of small farmers.
Critics of Fairtrade also point to how it is cheaper and easier for larger producer organizations to become certified. Others noted that this encourages overproduction, with producers leaning towards increasing their supply to cover the premium for better-paid farmers and workers.
On the consumption side, the concerns are equally compelling. For example, Fairtrade argues that it “offers consumers a powerful way to reduce poverty through their every day shopping.” But this is a problematic claim.
For one, it enjoins people to choose Fairtrade when it is not always the right decision. Is it, for example, ethical to buy a Fairtrade product flown in from another continent, when a sustainably grown alternative is available locally? Should disadvantaged shoppers be made to feel guilty for selecting what fits their budget over Fairtrade? Is a Fairtrade-only lifestyle even possible for a working-class household?
Not the solution
Effectively, Fairtrade’s claim shifts the conversation regarding poverty alleviation towards the act of consuming, when the economic problems we face today are caused by skewed relations of production. And skewed relations of production cannot be significantly altered by simply changing the brands we buy.
There is nothing essentially wrong with the “vote with your wallet” exhortation, but appropriated by the free market apologists, it simply becomes an effort to draw people away from the resistance movement, and turn them into consumers again.
Great danger also lies in capitalists using the existence of Fairtrade to argue that all we need is a workaround, not fundamental changes to a broken system. That none of the bigger evil agro-industrial corporations have really so much as criticized Fairtrade is very telling indeed. Isn’t it that capitalism has historically allowed pockets of dissent to exist, as long as they do not present real threat?
Nevertheless, I have zero doubt that Fairtrade is founded to present an alternative to the ways of capitalism. I do believe we need such an opportunity to envision the free society of our future. And that’s how we should view it: A rehearsal for a new society, nothing more, nothing less.