Tuesday, March 3, 2009

MPP 2: Op-ed

When "Fair Trade" is Not

Fair trade certification classifies over 180 different products. From bananas, to cut flowers and coffee, the organization TransFair USA certifies products that were grown in safe working conditions and sold by the farmers at a fair price. Although it is an honorable concept, the "fairness" of fair trade is questionable.

The fair trade system has not been appropriately scrutinized. The classification of fair trade itself connotates a positive and just system; after all, who would want to buy something called "exploitation coffee?" Most businesses boast their involvement with fair trade and the ethics of their products with the certification. However, a little digging produces a starkly different reality.

In theory, the customer pays a little more for fair trade products so the farmers can gain more financially. In truth, it doesn't work as smoothly or ethically as one would assume. To receive certification, farmers must navigate accreditation bureaucracies and make unnecessary sacrifices. For instance, despite cultural and personal objections, farmers must give up their small business status and join cooperatives, just to be candidates for the fair trade stamp of approval.

"Its like outlawing private enterprise," said Dan Cox, former head of the Speciality Coffee Association of America.

Since co-operatives are mandatory, many African farmers, organized along tribal lines, are excluded from even pursuing fair trade status. And even within co-ops, there is overwhelming evidence of leadership corruption and worker abuse. Annual inspections by fair trade certifiers fail to even check the farmers' wages.

What's more troubling is the irony of fair trade products being sold at infamous discount stores such as Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart chain seems to epitomize everything that the fair trade movement is working against: Wal-Mart's poor treatment of its own workers, its anti-union stance, and accusations of sweatshop issues. Selling "fair trade" anything at Wal-Mart is an oxymoron. Nevertheless, TransFair has approved three of Wal-Mart's house-brand coffees as fair trade certified.

The problem with including Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, and other big businesses, is that they prefer importing the "fair trade" items from big plantations. They would rather to continue their relationships with mass producers than taking the traditional route of identifying small farmers and purchasing directly from them.

It has been called "fair trade lite" by some and rightfully so. "There may be reforms, but it is a kindler, gentler, version of of the same old thing and fall short of what some of us are advocating," said Rink Dickinson, the president and co-founder a company committed to buying only from farmer-run co-ops.

TransFair sets different standards in the certification of fair trade plantations. But the very fact that plantations (repressive symbols of Euro-American colonialism) are now considered "fair trade" should be appalling. Many overseas plantations are still owned by their original rich white European colonizers. Plantation owners got where they are by exploiting the land and people in developing countries. The bottom line is, farmers need the chance to move forward. Repressive history shall not be repeated, especially disguised as something ethical and fair.

TransFair needs to go back to its roots and make their decisions on good motives, not business profit gains. Fair trade was started to benefit the farmers and should continue to work toward the good of developing countries. Whether Americans like it or not, we are active in the world of unjust trade and impoverishing practices. Fair trade certification must guarantee more than a marketing technique that clears our consciousness. The values and principles behind this movement need to be fully incorporated into the organization, its certification process, and decisions regarding fair trade distribution. Trade can be fair, but only under a new definition of justice and ethics. Let us work toward that goal together, fully aware of the impact our buying habits have on people around the world.

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