Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Why fair trade isn't really fair.

We all want to or try to make the most ethical choice when we buy our coffee or cocoa etc so we buy fairtrade thinking to our selves -"Hey, at least that poor farmer/grower isn't getting ripped off". And we go away and eat the yummy chocolate and it really is the best chocolate we've ever eaten in our lives and we're happy because we hope that by us buying the chocolate/coffee someone somewhere is getting treated fairly and they can feed their family and maybe their family's family and we're also happy that a big corporation is not benefiting from our chocolate eating (except if you are eating Green and Black fairtrade chocolate that has been bought out by Cadbury!)

I have been thinking a great deal about fair trade since writing papers on (ineffective) aid delivery to Papua New Guinea. What started my thinking about fairtrade was the constant description of 'poor' PNG communities that were always described as 'reliant on subsistence farming for survival' in a negative light. And for a while I went along with it. I thought "Yeah, these poor Papua New Guineans are only surviving on the food they can grow". But it dawned upon me that the alternative to subsistence farming was much worse (fairtrade or not) - cash crops.

Cash Crops are usually a first world market driven enterprise. When you rationalize cash crops in comparison to subsistence farming it's ludicrous. Eg. In another country they love to drink this yukky drink that we don't drink so I will pull up my vegetable plot and chicken run and plant as many coffee plants as possible and sell them to people who will sell it overseas and with this money I can buy all the food I would have originally grown myself had I not pulled them up to buy coffee (I do not mean to sound patronizing to Papua New Guineans as I think that the pressure to cash crop is largely coming from the ludicrous but often well-meaning developed world)

I do understand that there would be a financial surplus in cash-cropping but such a surplus
does not equate to the subsequent community and intrinsic value of growing one's own food (eg fulfillment, community building through bartering and local markets etc.)

The facilitation of fairtrade on a macro or micro scale is often driven by a developed world market with underlying capitalist agendas. Cash crops and other fair trade arrangements may very well fall through once peak oil becomes a more tangible reality. What hope is then left for both the developed and developing world when the reversal of globalization takes place? It may be a return to subsistence farming on a global level and those who are successful in growing food for survival will not be looked upon as the poor- that is certain.

As someone who is interested in overseas aid development programs I hope to encourage and equip individual/communities to relearn skills in growing their own food and gardens both in Australia and abroad. I hope to build sustainable (there goes that word...) projects, that is projects are not reliant upon a capitalist econmic market that is very precarious/volatile. But projects that look at local needs and skills.

Thanks for trudging through this lengthy piece. Let me known what you think about Fair/unfair trade.


byron said...

I'm very interested to hear of pros and cons re fair trade, since I've been asked to do a little preliminary research for Andrew Cameron and the Social Issues Briefing on the topic. Can you suggest any good references to chase up?

Rachel said...

mmm I'm sure you will find pro fair trade arguments on the Oxfam site. Ted Trainer has a good article about development in general that inspired my post have a look at

I'll let You know if i think of any others.
PS Are you feeling particularly cheerily avuncular today?

Jason said...

Great article Rachel. I'd like to leave this economy as much as is practical.

Byron, you've probably found heaps of resources already, but also check out World Vision. and follow the links on 'trade'.

byron said...

Hey Rach, thought your post on honesty and the law was very thoughtful.

Rachel said...

mmmm yeeeees. Thankyou Byron. the secret post that only you may have seen! I took it off becuse I thought I shold run it by Alex and I also was thinking I should re-word some things so that I don't get a call from ASIO or something... It will be back soon.

byron said...

Yes, one of the advantages (and disadvantages) of Bloglines is that once you post something, those with Bloglines (like myself) can read it even if you take it down... (though we only get to read it once, then it disappears).

And thanks everyone for all those references - that's all very helpful!

And yes, I do feel even more avuncular than I did a few days ago. :-)

meredith said...

hi rachel,

very thought provoking article. is the most ethical thing, to put the implications bluntly, to consume only what we can produce ourselves?

i wonder, too, how we should define community. if my community can be bigger than the number of people i personally know myself (eg if it includes people known to my neighbours but not to me) - where does it stop? can distributing foodstuffs equally and sharing resources fairly, on a global scale, count as world-wide community building? i don't think that's what fair trade currently achieves - your point about it being driven by a capitalist agenda is a weighty one - but could it work justly and fairly in the future? or not?

Rachel said...

Hi Meredith,

yeah I think that now and in the future the most ethical means of food production will need to take place either in out own backyards (I'm being literal) or in our own backyards (I'm being metaphorical).

By this I mean food produced on a local scale is/can be the most ethical (takes the least amount of resoucres to end up on your table). It is not impractical to be able to grow most of one's own food needs but a group or community of people (be they a church group or group of friends or people who all live on the same street/sam,e block of flats etc) could organise in such a way to have a greater variety of foods through bartering etc.

And yeah I think you are right there will be problems with this as humans are sinful and the distribution of food in this manner won't always be fair. One person's community may not be anothers.

I do think though when Peak oil becomes a tangible reality communities will be more defined by location in ways they have not been since pre cars.

"Fair-trade being driven by a capitalist agenda" is a claim mostly based on the economics of development in general; and subsequently fairtrade. That is, capitalist values such as a country having 'ecomonic growth' or multiple goods and services is often imposed on third world countries through development.

Long rave. sorry. love to keep talking with you about this though.