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Which Fair Trade?

In Effect:

Tomorrow is the official worldwide Fair Trade Day, which has been observed on the second Saturday in May for the past five years. This day is a call to consumers to be more mindful of the purchases they make on a daily basis, which is at least as important as the broader policy initiatives instituted by the government.

Yesterday Seth wrote an interesting piece post about fair trade. The human-human transaction that once occurred in the market place has been long replaced with a transaction between things. This psychology is so internalized that many can not break free.

Interestingly, Seth argues against overzealous materialism and transaction-oriented thinking, while at the same time he emphasizes cost or the almighty dollar as his overiding argument for Fair Trade.

I think there are two Fair Trades, one concerned with creating a more humane, fairer approach to trade, and one for liberals to sleep well at night. If it is the former the first mediation is not money. If my transaction in the marketplace is truly based on a fairer sense of trade, cost will not play a role until I have two comparable products. In anti fair trade the primary and often only mediation in the market place is the almighty dollar, in Fair Trade is it does factor in until the end of the transaction process.

I buy Fair Trade coffee, no not from Star Bucks, nor Trader Joes, but the real stuff from Just Coffee. It is not simply a monetary interaction but a social, cultural, and political one. I buy from Just Coffee because I want to know the human component on the other side of the transaction. It is not enough to say they are earning a living wage, who decides what that is.

I usually buy a 5 pound bag of Just Coffee every few months or so, but the transaction does not stop there. I check their website regularly to see how that transaction is going. I typically buy the Solidarity Blend which not only supports small growers and communities but also solidarity groups (unions for example).

Several times a year Just Coffee sends delegations to their coffee producers. For a vacation you could actually visit the growers, workers, and children who produce your particular blend of coffee. While at this time I may not be able to afford such a delegation, I can certainly see slide shows of those visits. If I wanted to do an office or school fund raiser, I could focus on a blend from a particular country or region.

It seems to me that Fair Trade at its core is about changing our relationship to trade. Its ceases to be solely economical, monetary, or lowest cost, and instead about re-establishing that human to human interaction in the market place.


15 responses to “Which Fair Trade?

  1. Wow, man. Just Coffee? You’re so pure.

    Cost wasn’t my overriding argument for fair trade. All I said was that fair trade doesn’t need to cost more, or at least not much more, than non-fair trade products. If cost was the overriding emphasis, then my argument would completely fall apart because I can’t think of one instance where fair trade products are the cheapest.

    It’s my feeling that if you ask most people why they don’t buy fair trade products, they’ll either say they don’t know what that is or they’ll say it costs too much. So my post was aimed at explaining what fair trade means, how to find fair trade products, and that fair trade doesn’t always cost more (or much more) than the non-fair trade products people usually buy.

    But you just keep on trying to convince people that if they consider cost or if they can’t watch video of people growing their coffee, then they’re just not good enough.

  2. Seth,

    You more or less made my point. You’re right of course, the anti-fair trade psychology forces us to look to see price as primal.

    What I was tryirng to point out was fair trade was not only about purchasing a product but changing the psychology of the transaction.

    Fair trade by its essence flip flops our normal interaction to the market, rather than price being out primary mediation, it takes a back seat to social, cultural, and personal considerations.

    It really has nothing to do with being good enough. What I was trying to do was point out how Fair Trade in the best sense changes our mediation in the market place. We may purchase an item because wages give someone a living wage, production is environmentally sustainable, products come from local farms etc. The almighty dollar is not the central mediator.

  3. Siobhan ⋅

    We are so lucky to have Just Coffee in our backyard, they helped our PTA run a fundraiser we could feel good about and they were really easy to work with.
    We found that their prices were very competitive, I think the cost was about $6.50 /lb and we could charge $10 and keep the rest for the school (that’s a great profit compared to those wrapping paper catalogues 10-15%).

  4. How is what I wrote in my post (or my comment) at all at odds with that point?

    This is a typical case of you reading into one of my posts so that you can make an argument about what kind of liberal you think I am.

    Of course fair trade is about more than cost. That’s sort of built into the whole idea. But that doesn’t mean something needs to cost more in order to be fair trade. That’s one of the biggest misunderstandings about fair trade products, which is why I aimed at it in my post.

    I’m interested, ultimately, in getting as many people as possible to purchase as many fair trade products as possible. Rather than try to simply convince them that cost shouldn’t really matter all that much — which, in my view, is probably going to turn a good number of people off, and those it doesn’t (like yourself) are probably already buying fair trade — my tact was to tell them buying fair trade is socially conscious and it doesn’t need to break the bank.

    And by simply buying fair trade, they’re inherently inserting a social/cultural/personal consideration into the transaction regardless of where price is factored into it.

  5. Siobhan,

    Thanks. That is good to hear. Was this a popular fund raiser with the parents?


    I never said anything was at odd with that. I did say you had an interesting post. In some circles that would be referred to as a complement.

    I did say it was interesting that in critiquing overzealous materialism, that cost become part of your rationality for fair trade. I find that a critique of not only you but all of us interacting in an anti fair trade economy.

    Seth, you are right that something does not need to cost more to be fair trade. But cost being the primary motivation is an internalization of an anti- fair trade ideology. In order for cost to take that primal consideration, all those other considerations need to be ignored. I think fair trade turns that relation on its head.

    In short you are using a anti fair trade rationality to promote fair trade. I just aimed to point out the inconsistency.

  6. Seth,

    One more thing. I actually applaud you for writing a post on Fair Trade. Most of the Democratic bloggers avoid economic issues like the plague, you are not afraid to address them every now and then.

  7. You certainly know how to veil a compliment in a loaded criticism.

    My main objections are to the comments about characterizing my type of fair trade as the kind that merely helps “liberals to sleep well at night” and how your fair trade coffee purchases from Just Coffee are “the real stuff” while mine from Trader Joe’s are not. In essence, you’re calling my attempts at fair trade fake and your attempts authentic. In some circles that wouldn’t be referred to as a compliment.

    Now it seems you’re backing away from that by saying you were trying to build on my argument rather than just critique it.

    To be honest, I think your critique was pretty weak, but I still wanted to call you out on it. After all, you weren’t objecting to the consideration of cost, but rather the more ambiguous notion that I was pushing for the consideration of cost at the wrong point in the transaction. I actually wasn’t doing that, and that’s where I think you read into my post something that would help you make a political argument that mainstream liberals are fake fair traders while Greens like yourself do it right. Saying that fair trade products don’t need to cost more (or much more) is not making cost primary, it’s just stating a fact. Fair trade products are never the cheapest, so if cost is primary, no one would ever purchase fair trade products.

    And my points about materialism and transaction-oriented thinking have nothing to do with cost. Materialism refers to the constant accumulation of more and more goods regardless of need. Transaction-oriented thinking, if you followed my link, refers to the application of market principles to non-market aspects of life like citizenship or education. Again, cost is not a factor there. The fact that I point out that fair trade products don’t need to cost more (or much more) than non-fair trade products does not at all contradict those two points, but that doesn’t stop you from trying to make it seem like they do.

  8. Siobhan ⋅

    Yeah, it went over really well since they were able to add fair trade chocolate and local organic and rBGH-free cheeses to the order too, again very reasonably!

  9. You hit it on the head again. As a liberal you say there is this thing called ‘market values’ and object to them being applied in non-market arenas. Me, on the other hand question those values being applied anywhere including the market.
    If you want to go to Trader Joes to get your coffee, go ahead, but I am not so sure how it would be different from non fair trade coffee.
    Fair Trade is not a brand, it is a social movement a change in ones interaction with the market. As always it is your words that come back to haunt you.
    A question, if you were talking about a school would your initial argument be its cost or other factors. Would you mention school A has greater fees than school B, or that hot lunch was a little more, or field trip were a little high. If you answered no, then you getting closer to my point.
    Liberals believe in a dualistic
    or binary world of public / private, political / economic etc, whereas socialists do not. Liberals get upset when the values of the market are applied to education, socialists see those values in question anywhere. Liberals believe in political democracy, socialists believe in democracy everywhere.

  10. The little logic you were sustaining just blew away in that last comment, Nate.

    For starters, fair trade isn’t socialism — it’s capitalism. It’s certainly a different kind of capitalism than the cut-throat profit-driven type practiced by most corporations in the US, but it’s capitalism nonetheless.

    Second, all fair trade food products are certified by the same organization, TransFair USA. To say the fair trade coffee at Trader Joe’s is no different than non-fair trade coffee is ridiculous. (By the way, how are my words coming back to haunt me? I’m just lost on that one.)

    Third, you’re lying if you say cost isn’t a factor for you in every purchase you make. You may be willing to pay more than most people to get products that are socially conscious, but the cost is still a factor.

  11. By the way, Nate, you might want to point out to Siobhan that s/he is ruining the whole idea of fair trade for considering the “competitive prices” at Fair Coffee.

  12. Seth,

    I don’t think you’d know what capitalism was if it hit you in the face. Many local fair trade shops are socialist – worker owned cooperatives. The corporatist fair trade of whole foods / trader joes certainly is not, you are correct about that.

    You still did not answer my question, how would you rationalize education, would money be the central concern? While you’re at it how much of the trader joe coffee goes to education programs, making sure the cooperatives remain sustainable. Oh yea which cooperatives did you get the coffee from?

    No, cost is not the reason I purchase fair trade coffee. It is very competitive price wise, but it isn’t the reason. The same way the price is not the reason for the mustard I buy, nor the jam, nor the maple syrup, nor water. I buy these items because they are made in Madison and Wisconsin.

    There is one way cost is a factor, not in itself but for solidarity. What is really important is for working class folks in U.S., Africa, Latin America etc. to have a connection or solidarity as a class. I don’t think that’s a big issue with your social network though.

  13. So many assumptions, Nate, so few facts.
    You’re confusing the manufacturing and the retailing of products. While manufacturers and retailers can be organized as co-ops, which would make them internally socialist, the trade between a manufacturer and a retailer — and subsequently between a retailer and a consumer — is a capitalist endeavor. What makes fair trade great is that it’s ensuring that the terms of the capitalist trade are socially conscious and humane, at least between the manufacturer and the retailer.
    I do buy local products, which is why I made a special note on my blog about Fair Indigo — a Wisconsin-based retailer of fair trade clothing — along with American clothing manufacturers. And I think co-ops are great. I frequently go to Outpost in Milwaukee, which is the biggest co-op in town. When I lived in Madison, I shopped a Willy Street for a lot of my food, and the rest I got at the worker-owned (although quite corporate-like) Woodman’s. If ever given a choice between a product manufactured here in Wisconsin and one manufactured elsewhere, I’ll purchase the one from Wisconsin.
    I don’t want to get into a pissing contest here about who buys more socially conscious products. And I don’t know exactly where my coffee was grown (although perhaps I could if I looked into it), but I do know the growers were given a fair price and TransFair USA ensures that it comes from one of about 70 growers that have gone through a certification process (profiles of each are available on the TransFair website). And I can see your point that being able to watch a video of exactly where my coffee is grown can help personalize the market transaction — but, in the end, isn’t that really more about making me sleep better at night rather than the person on the other end of the deal? Perhaps I should consider going through a co-op to purchase my coffee rather than Trader Joe’s, but the benefit of that is going to be felt here based upon how the retailer acts in my community rather than how it interacts with the growers in their communities (and, for the record, TransFair USA does ensure that growers are worker-owned and a portion of profits are re-invested in the grower’s community through scholarship programs, training programs, etc.).
    And I never said cost was the reason you buy fair trade products. That seems to be where you’re getting really hung up on my post, so let me make it clear: All I said in my post is that cost doesn’t need to prevent someone from purchasing fair trade products. And all I said in my comment is that cost is a factor for you — would you always purchase fair trade coffee if it was only available for $100 per pound?
    And, getting to this point you’re trying to make about education, my answer would be that it depends. If you’re talking about access to certain types of education, like college, then cost would be an important factor. But if you’re talking about applying market principles to actual teaching and learning — i.e., the students are the customers and the teachers will provide them neatly pre-packaged information to consume — then I’m most certainly not on board. But I’m having trouble figuring out the point you’re trying to make with that question in relation to our discussion of fair trade products. You seem to want to say that market principles — including cost — shouldn’t be applied to even market situations, like the purchase of goods, but I find that entire notion impossible. It’s a market. No matter what principles you apply to your decision as a consumer, those principles will be, in essence, market principles. You may chose to put the highest weight on whether a product is fair trade; someone else may put the highest weight on whether a product is healthy or made in an environmentally-friendly manner; and someone else may put the highest weight on cost. All my post was trying to do was increase the weight people place on fair trade — that’s it.

  14. Seth,

    Since you don’t read your posts, I’ll highlight it for you.

    1. And buying fair trade products doesn’t mean you need to go out of your way or even necessarily pay more. All it takes is being mindful.

    2. And while the cost of fair trade food can be higher in some instances, it’s not always the case.

    3. If done carefully, fair trade does not have to cost more. While a bigger share of the clothing you buy from us goes directly to the worker, we can hold the other costs down in several ways.

    It seems pretty clear to me the overriding rationality was cost. I applauded you bringing up this issue, and in my comments even credited you for discussing economic issues. Where I diverged from you piece was the danger with an over emphasis on cost.

    It seems from your last post you largely agree with me, so lets leave it at that.

  15. How do any of those points — the last of which is from the Fair Indigo website — say that cost is THE reason to buy fair trade? To be sure, the second one even acknowledges that fair trade can often times cost more. All of those points are exactly what I said in all of my comments, which is that cost does not need to prevent anyone from buying fair trade.

    You read into the post what you wanted to in order to make a half-cocked political point about liberals like me supposedly being fake fair traders who only do it to sleep well at night while Greens like you are the real deal. Why don’t we leave it at that?

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