This is a thought experiment comprised of other thought experiments.
Thought Experiment 1: Does Fair Trade certification signal a company’s commitment to social justice, environmental sustainability and fair remuneration of workers?
If so, why does Wal-Mart carry Fair Trade-certified products?
Thought Experiment 2: Where do Fair Trade products usually come from?
If you’re an avid Fair Trade consumer you probably can name dozens of places: Fair Trade bananas from Central America, Fair Trade chocolate from West Africa, Fair Trade clothes from Bangladesh, Fair Trade wine from South America, Fair Trade Coffee from Africa and so on and so on. But those places are always from somewhere far away. How many Fair Trade products are from the US? Or Western Europe? Thought Experiment 3: Are Fair Trade principles just not relevant to American or European workers?
If we can acknowledge that many companies are perfectly happy to continue producing non-Fair Trade products alongside the Fair Trade ones and that some retailers sell Fair Trade products whilst not even paying their own employees a living wage, is it possible that Fair Trade certification is just a way of offering indulgences for your guilty consumer conscience?
Perhaps that’s too cynical.
Or perhaps it’s not cynical enough: One study found that Fair Trade producers only get one quarter of the Fair Trade premium (i.e. the difference in price between a normal product and a Fair Trade product), which means three-quarters of the price markup is pocketed by the labelling organisations or the retailers, or anyone other than the humble farmers depicted in Fair Trade literature. Turning a profit from slapping labels on packages is obviously a huge motivator for FairTrade USA, which is why it decided two years ago to loosen standards for what constitutes ‘Fair Trade‘ in order to get more business from multinational corporations.
Now, we could dredge up any number of Fair Trade scandals : How one Fair Trade cotton supplier in Burkina Faso used child labour to harvest the cotton that eventually ended up in Victoria’s Secret’s Fair Trade line or how Fair Trade-certified coffee plantation owners in Peru pay their workers less than the legal minimum wage.
Yes, we could go through example after example, but simply concluding that the Fair Trade system is open to exploitation and abuse would be missing the point. The problem isn’t the gaps or the lacunae in the Fair Trade model; it’s the underlying belief that now drives the Fair Trade movement. That belief is that the same system of global consumer capitalism which has produced massive inequalities, degraded the environment and stripped indigenous communities of their natural resources, can somehow undo its own damage.
By now, my answer to the question in the title should be obvious: No, of course not. Fair Trade standards in Europe allow 80% of a product’s components to be non-Fair Trade but still get the Fair Trade label. In the US, it’s now 90%. Easy enough to keep most of your workers enslaved and still get the magic label.
But perhaps more to the point: ‘Fair’ — at least in the context of ‘Fair Trade’ –doesn’t refer to an ethical ideal or any kind of gold standard. It merely represents the more palatable outcomes possible within current arrangements. ‘Fair Trade’ in the antebellum South probably would have applied to masters who treated their slaves better than the average, just as it now seems to be given to producers who aren’t as bad as they could be.
Note that this is not an invitation to frivolity or nihilism. I am not saying ‘Buy whatever you want because it’s all unethical anyway!’ Nor am I suggesting that everything that bears the Fair Trade label is a fraud. But please, please, don’t rest content, imagining that you’ve done your part for the betterment of humanity just by spending a little bit more on bananas.
You CAN change the world and make people’s lives better. But you may have to do it as a citizen, not a consumer.