In a massive grocery superstore, clinical in character, housing any product one’s heart desires, they can be found. They sit on one of the hundreds of shelves, pressed in between a few of the thousand of products that are illuminated by the florescent lighting. The products are not unlike the others, the packaging looks relatively similar and they could easily be mistaken as any other product. However, upon closer glance by the consumer’s trained eye, it can be spotted. Placed on one of the corners, displayed in a confident manner like a badge of honour, a symbol with the words ‘Fair Trade’ can be found.
In Canada, fair trade products include Coffee, Tea, Cocoa, Cotton, Flowers, Fruit, Grains, Spices and Herbs, Nuts and Oils, Sports Balls, Sugar and Wine (Fair Trade Canada 2010:1). According to TransFair Canada, fair trade “seeks to change the terms of trade for the products we buy – to ensure the farmers and artisans behind those products get a better deal” (ibid).
Fair trade products, in particular coffee and tea, have become popular. Whether individuals want to support Ethiopian, Ecuadorian or Columbian farmers through their purchases, in North American coffee shops and grocery stores, they get to choose. Corporate chains such as Starbucks, Timothy’s Coffee and Second Cup often offer a brand of fair trade products, while grocery stores provide customers with the opportunity to choose from a variety of brands. Although many consumers may not know the fine details of what fair trade entails, they understand it as a more ethical purchase, with benefits going to the ‘third world’.
An article in The Economist titled How Fair is It? reviews a piece from the New York Times on fair trade. An excerpt from this article illustrates the ambiguous and potentially negative consequences of fair trade:
It seems like a lovely idea. Conscientious consumers are willing to pay more for goods produced in what is viewed as a less exploitative manner. But how well does the model hold up in practice? Dani Rodrik notes a few inconsistencies. He points out that fair-trade products often sell at no mark-up in retail stores, a matter explained away by retailers who claim they’ve achieved efficiency gains with fair-trade producers, allowing them to pay more for the product and still maintain their profit margins.
Mr Rodrik continues: Now, which one of us really know what “fair trade” certification is really getting us when we consume a product with that label? The market-based principle animating the movement is based on the idea that consumers are willing to pay something extra for certain social goals they value. But clearly there is an opaqueness in what the transaction is really about. And who gets to decide what the “long list of rules” should be, if not the consumer herself?
Consider some of the requirements that the fair trade purchaser imposes. [A] Brazilian coffee farmer has to make sure that his children are enrolled in school. Wait a minute, the economist in you should say. Isn’t the farmer himself a better judge of how his extra income should be spent? Should these decisions be made by Starbucks instead?
(The Economist, 2007:1)
The examination by Rodrick of fair trade products, questions the public’s awareness of what fair trade actually entails and whom fair trade truly benefits. The fair trade debate is complex and only a surface level examination can be offered here. However, the issue of development as consumerism, brought forth by the fair trade debate, is worthy of a critical examination.
The idea that North Americans can purchase goods to improve the lives of poverty-stricken individuals in the ‘third world’ is one that dominates development discourse. Consumers can purchase a hotly brewed coffee and contribute to a farmer in Bolivia’s community, or buy a RED t-shirt and help eradicate AIDS in Africa, or sponsor a child in Bangladesh for one dollar a day and improve her/his life. This relationship between North American consumerism and development is problematic.
The basis of the problem with purchasing as development is the great disconnect consumers can have from the issues that are supposedly being addressed through their purchases. When one’s engagement with development ends the moment after a credit card has been returned, little understanding of the issues is gained. If North American consumers know nothing about the people, communities or nations they are supposedly helping, and only know that these products cost more than non-fair trade products, times of economic crisis can prove devastating. Unsurprisingly non-profit organizations were greatly impacted during the recent economic crisis (Waldie 2010:1).
Furthermore individuals that have little understanding of the complexities underlying poverty within the ‘third world’ may be ready to support any method touted as an eradication of poverty. Colonialism, the enforcement of harsh dictatorships and the implementation of devastating structural adjustment programs, were all ‘sold’ to Westerners as beneficial to the ‘third world’. Without an understanding of the history of the nations, peoples, and issues being addressed, North Americans may blindly throw monetary donations at causes that have the same negative implications.
What is necessary, rather than a conversation regarding how we can make fair trade more widespread, is an examination of the implications of fair trade. What message does fair trade disseminate regarding the ‘third world’ and understandings of development? What role does consumerism occupy in North Americans’ understanding of poverty eradication? More thought must be given to the forms in which development takes in the ‘first world’ beginning with this idea of development as consumerism.