Can’t buy me justice

During Fairtrade Fortnight, ‘ethical shopping’ might reduce Western guilt but it does little to reduce Third World poverty.

Nathalie Rothschild

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‘Public awareness raising’ is a favoured method of many charities and pressure groups to generate support and funds. Hardly a week goes by without some organisation or other urging us to become aware of their various campaigns. From breast cancer and breastfeeding to AIDS, bullying, plagiarism and salt reduction in food, there seems to be a day or week dedicated to just about every imaginable cause out there. Since 2004, the Fairtrade Foundation has claimed a fortnight in February and March for their cause to increase awareness of the FAIRTRADE mark among consumers. This year’s campaigning theme is ‘Change Today, Choose Fairtrade’.

It’s a straightforward message – by changing your brand of coffee, underwear and wine to more ‘ethical’ alternatives that have the FAIRTRADE label on them, you will not only change your own lifestyle, but also make a difference to the poor in the developing world. This may sound like a simplification or caricature of the processes and ideas behind fair trade, which is supposed to ‘guarantee that disadvantaged producers in the developing world are getting a better deal’ (1). But, as Oxfam puts it: ‘While you go shopping for delicious Fairtrade food and drink, people in the developing world are earning a decent living, feeding their family, putting their children through school. Fighting poverty.’ (2) The Fairtrade Fortnight press release states that the purpose of the campaign is ‘to communicate how informed consumer decisions can help tackle poverty in the developing world’ (3).

So is the Fairtrade Foundation giving us the right information; can fair trade really lift people out of poverty? According to Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute, ‘historically, the means to lift people out of poverty have been through free trade, not fair trade’. He tells me that while more people were lifted out of poverty last year than ever before – most of them in India and China – he doubts ‘even one of them was helped by fair trade. They were lifted out of poverty because they could sell their products in the developed world’s market’. His message is simple, he says: ‘Buy their stuff!’

Pirie tells me that instead of managing the process of trade, benefiting selected producers by allowing them to sell at a premium over the market price, we should abolish subsidies and tariff barriers in the developed world and buy as much stuff from the developing world as possible. By protecting the market for certain producers, says Pirie, they ‘become prisoners to our market – they become dependent on us continuing to pay premium prices for their goods’.

Pirie has a point about trade barriers. While Western leaders love to wax lyrical about saving Africa, for example, they do little to provide poor farmers with a level playing field to sell their goods over here, while dumping subsidised goods over there. But Pirie’s ideal of ‘free trade’ isn’t going to exist any time soon – in fact, there hasn’t been ‘free trade’ for over a century. What is the case is that for most of the developing world, the market system has utterly failed to liberate them from poverty.

Moreover, Pirie does not challenge the notion that we in the developed world should bring about global social change mainly through our ‘consumer power’. The growing popularity of so-called ‘ethical consumption’ in the West parallels a diminishing sense of political imagination and motivation for political activism. When ‘global justice’ is said to be achievable in supermarket aisles and on the high street, then not only are we in the West narcissistically easing our own conscience rather than the often backbreaking work of Third World farmers, but we are also, by obsessing about consumption, moving further away from any effort to increase and diversify methods of production.

Steven Daley, founder of the Irish development education charity Trasna an Domhain go Leir (Across the Whole World), tells me that ‘the Fairtrade labelling scheme is really just a charade with no valuable benefits to the poor. It allows Western consumers to have a sense of virtue. The Fairtrade Foundation allows entire towns to call themselves “fairtrade towns”, but this badge of honour is a cheap way of connecting the sympathy of ordinary people with the plight of the poor.’

Public awareness campaigns usually come with crass and cheesy slogans. The Fairtrade Fortnight press release proclaims: ‘Posters are being distributed countrywide exhorting people to Munch it!, Wear it!, Spread it!, Taste it! and Choose it! along with the call to action Promote it!, Try it!, Plan it!.’ The Fortnight Action Guide is filled with family-friendly fun, with tips for games and recipes and pictures of smiling African farmers and delicious-looking cakes.

The Action Guide suggests we organise events in our communities, schools, workplaces, universities and homes. Why not do a ‘Fairtrade makeover à la Trinny & Susannah?’ or organise a ‘Fairtrade X-Change’ and get people to ‘bring along their current favourite brand of tea, coffee, juice, jam, chocolate etc to an event and provide Fairtrade samples for people to exchange it for’. You can also get people to fill in pledge cards to ‘change today and choose Fairtrade’ (4).

Even if you are a supporter of fair trade, the Action Guide may come across as just a tad too patronising. But don’t worry; there are plenty of alternatives out there if you are looking for guidance and means to ‘go ethical’. With the proliferation of lifestyle gurus and ethical columnists, the growing sales of organic food and the ever-widening range of carbon offsetting schemes and fairtrade products, it seems easier than ever to take up ‘ethical consumerism’ (though, as Rob Lyons has pointed out, the definition of this seems so wide that just about anything could be ‘ethical’ – see Still not ethical after all these years). But the hang-ups with guilt-free shopping and living are our own. Can we really presume that Third World farmers aspire to nothing more than sustaining our ethical lifestyles, especially when that means they are effectively forced to adopt those ‘ethical’ values themselves?

Daley tells me that not only is the impact of fair trade schemes in the developing world nominal – ‘the financial benefits that accrue are quite miserable’ – but, as with programmes of multi-lateral development organisations, they are also bound with conditions. ‘The profit is not normally just handed over to the poor to do with as they wish, but this is dictated by organisations that credit the fair trade schemes’, says Daley.

‘Fair trade organisations do not focus on investing in machinery or pesticides or connecting areas to the national electric grid – things that actually improve productivity.’ Some of the nominal benefits of fair trade sales in Third World communities have been building outside toilets and clearing away plastic bags (5).

A case study on the Fairtrade Foundation website tells the success story of Alfredo Martinez, a banana grower in the Dominican Republic, who now, thanks to his participation in a fair trade scheme, has a regular income. We are not told how big his income is, but Martinez does seem grateful: ‘He doesn’t like to think what would happen if the Fairtrade market disappeared. “We would have to find another solution. We can’t let all this go.” Realistically, though, small producers like Alfredo could not export their bananas through any other route. The main banana exporters in the Dominican Republic are only interested in working with larger suppliers…’ (6)

It is true that small producers participating in fair trade schemes cannot compete with large suppliers. So how can they ever aspire to more than just a small, regular income or to transforming their lives radically if they are not equipped to either increase their yield through mechanisation – something that the Fairtrade Foundation seems to ignore (7) – or get out of farming altogether?

None of that seems to bother Fairtrade Foundation executive director Harriet Lamb much. At a House of Commons International Development Committee evidence session on fair trade earlier this week, Lamb was asked whether it’s all really just about guilt. She responded that guilt doesn’t change anything but that it’s about feeling good – ‘and it’s good to feel good’.

Lamb was just repeating a message that is made quite explicit by fair trade campaigners: we don’t have to feel bad about spending money because fair trade allows that spending to lead directly to poverty alleviation in the Third World. This is part and parcel of the fair trade ethos, but the only guaranteed benefit of such moral posturing is guilt-reduction in the developed world.

While fair trade products may be easy to swallow, they’re certainly hard to stomach.

Nathalie Rothschild is reviews editor at spiked.

Read on:

Bless me father, for I have shopped, by Emily Hill

Shop till global injustice drops!, by Nathalie Rothschild

Stop living ethically, and start living, by Josie Appleton

(1) See the Fairtrade Foundation’s website

(2) See Oxfam’s website

(3) See the Fairtrade Fortnight 2007 press release

(4) See the Fairtrade Fortnight Action Guide, 1 March 2007

(5) See the Fairtrade Foundation’s website

(6) See the examples of benefits on the Fairtrade Foundation’s website

(7) As demonstrated in the film The Bitter Aftertaste. See Shop till global injustice drops!, by Nathalie Rothschild

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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