Thursday, 22 August 2013

Fair Trade Fanatic

If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a fan of tea and coffee.  When it is available to me, I try to choose the fair trade option (this applies to chocolate as well).  Many people don't think too much about their coffee and tea and where it came from or who it effects, like the farmers that grow the beans, and those that do and choose fair trade as a result, probably assume that it's the best option and don't think about reasons why it might not be.

Here's the facts about fair trade so you can make an informed decision next time you buy coffee, tea, or chocolate.

Disclaimer:  This post is geared more towards coffee in particular, but the information still pertains to all fair trade products.

60% of coffee producers are small farmers who are unable to export their goods directly.  They first have to sell to midlevel traders or resellers.  The midlevel traders have a monopoly and can therefore buy the goods as cheaply as they please.  The farmers have to go along with it.  The midlevel traders sell the coffee at a much higher price than what they paid for it.

If you know anything about human geography, you'll notice that many of the countries in the bean belt are less economically developed countries, so exploiting them like the middle men do is a jerk move.  Fair trade eliminates the midlevel traders, meaning that farmers can export their goods directly and at a fair price.

Fair trade has economic, environmental, and social benefits.  It guarantees that more money goes to the farmers.  Small farmers generally don't use harsh chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, and they plant a variety of crops, which is better for the soil.  It allows communities to build schools and health facilities, become more self-sufficient, and less dependent on aid.

Those are the basics.  Time to look at the problems.

My biggest issue with it is that calling something fair trade can be misleading.  Unless stated, you don't know if the seller is selling 100% fairly traded coffee, or only 50%.  Starbucks claims to be selling fair trade products, when really only 3.7% of their coffee is fairly traded.  That mere 3.7% is still allowed to fall under the fair trade umbrella.

“The people at TransFair [a non-profit fair trade organization] have said from day one that the more fair trade products that get sold, the better it is for the farmer, and I agree with that.  On the other hand, if there is no differentiation between 100 percenters and the dabblers, customers get a misreading of what’s going on, and it lessens the integrity of the label.”
-Dean Cyon of Dean’s Beans, a 100% fair trade roaster in Massachusetts 

Conventional coffee gives farmers 10 cents for every dollar whereas fair trade gives them 30 cents per dollar.  Sounds great, but look at this:

It seems like we're missing something.  Are the farmers getting 30 cents per dollar on top of these higher prices, or does it only seem like they're getting more money because of the higher prices?  Or is there someone else getting money out of this that we're not seeing?  Companies justify the higher prices saying it is compensation for the physical work the farmers do to hand pick only the ripest berries.

Fair trade encourages farmers to form co-ops to create democracy in an otherwise undemocratic society.  This is great in theory; however, co-ops can be just as corrupt as any other organization.  The farmers may not necessarily be getting a truly fair price.  They receive whatever the co-op decides they should receive, and sometimes the co-ops get the better end of the deal.

Fair trade can also cause unemployment, for the midlevel traders primarily, but small fair trade coffee shops lose business when larger corporations or big brand names offer fair trade.  This is upsetting, because more often than not, small coffee shops sell fair trade coffee because they believe in its benefits and not for monetary gain.  When larger corporations sell it, it's for profit.  They have a market that they can't reach unless they offer fair trade products.

Have you ever realized that language changes how we perceive things?  That may come into play here too.  The definition of "fair" is this: not favouring one more than the other; just; honest; according to the rules; clean or pure; without blemishes or errors; correct.  Synonyms for fair include: decent, equal, lawful, reasonable, respectable, unbiased, equitable, legitimate, proper, square, trustworthy, and unprejudiced.  These words play on our emotions.  We hear words such as "fair" and we feel as though that is the best choice, or that we will be more globally considerate for buying that product.  Even certain brand names fall under this point.  For example, the fair trade brand Just Us is a play-on words of the word "justice."

So, should you buy fair trade or not?  My answer is yes.  Fair trade is a good idea and a better option, though it may not be as good as it makes itself out to be.  Now you have the information you need to make an informed decision the next time you have to choose between fair trade and conventional products.

1 comment:

  1. Well again I am impressed with the level of thought that goes into these posts. You make some very valid points on both the pros AND cons of fair trade products.

    It got me thinking when you brought up the price difference in the product to us vs the amount the producer is being paid. Though it may not seem to be right that the product price to us rises dramatical and the producers profit does not rises as much, but think of these points. One, the amount the producer is making is increasing and in most parts of the world, the cost of living is a fraction of what it is here. To give a easy example to follow; if a worker here in North America was making $10/hr and sudden had an increase to $30/hr, it would be a very notable increase. Fair Trade increases the producers income by 300% according to your information. I think a lot of people get caught up that it is cents and not dollars the producers are getting paid.

    Second, these Fair Trade companies may be cutting out the middle man bit now they have to take up all the responsibilities that the middle man took care of before. In doing this, there is an infrastructure that needs to be put into place. This cost money, and until this infrastructure is firmly established the cost of the product will be higher.

    Thirdly, North Americans have a perceived image in our head that if a product is more expensive then the better it will be. Though this may often be true, this is something that big companies know and I believe that is what also brings the price up. A good example (sorry GMC fans) is Chevy and GMC trucks. They are the same truck, built by the same people, just have a different emblem on the front BUT GMC trucks cost more because they are SUPPOSE to be a better truck (Dodge all the way!!!!). I rest my case.

    I also liked as a conclusion that you stated what you will do (buy Fair Trade) but you challenge the reader to make their own educated decision. Bravo, Taylor!

    Justin, The Forklift Driver