Fair Trade Blinds a Consumer’s’ View of Capitalism (Opinion)

“Fair Trade products bolster faith in market based solutions which in turn allows consumers to engage in cognitive dissonance about the exploitative side of capitalism.”

Global Exchange, an international human rights organization, defines Fair Trade on their website as “food or crafts that are produced under standards designed to end and prevent the poverty, sweatshop labor conditions, environmental degradation.” Fair Trade products are certified by independent third party labeling organizations, not by States or state agencies. I argue with regards to labor standards, Fair Trade products bolster faith in market based solutions which in turn allows consumers to engage in cognitive dissonance about the exploitative side of capitalism. Southern producers of goods have not benefited from selling Fair Trade goods as have larger corporations benefited from selling goods with Fair Trade labeling. Products made with higher labor standards in our late capitalist system are more expensive which causes the consumption of Fair Trade products to rely on unequal wealth distribution. The socially constructed identity an individual has influences their ‘ethical’ purchasing decisions, not whether or not it is an adequate solution. Relying on market-driven solutions to fix the inefficiencies of capitalism, lower labor standards due to wage-labor, is bourgeois ideology and a solution in-line with the thinking of economic elites.

In his work Brewing Justice, Jaffe surveys over 55 Fairtrade and conventional coffee producing families in Oaxaca Mexico. It appears that Fair Trade producers have not had significant gains. The net income of fair-trade households was not much different from that of their conventional neighbors; the higher prices they received for their coffee were largely offset by the additional wages they had to pay to produce it (272 Mcook “Coffee and Flowers: Recent Research on Commodity Chains, Neoliberalism, and Alternative Trade in Latin America”). Stuart Mcook reviews Jaffe’s survey and concludes that many farmers perceive the additional work of producing Fair Trade products as not worth it (272 Mcook). Garvin Fridell, in his book Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Market Driven Social Justice, indicates how fair traders ditched their former desires of establishing a new economic order based on higher labor conditions, and instead established non governmental organizations like FLO, Fair Trade Labeling Organization. However, this latter organization is limited because it relies on “voluntary commitments from private corporations” (81). Fridell later highlights how Fair Trade networks have had their “greatest growth in the era of neoliberal globalisation.” This has been able to happen mainly due to “increasing participation by international bodies, such as the World Bank, as well as Transnational Corporations (TNCs) which view the fair-trade network as a voluntarist alternative to state regulation” (81).  Fair Trade products have become promises by corporations certified by third party labeling organizations that they will uphold high labor standards. According to FairTradeUSA.org Starbucks Coffee Company meets their criteria, it is listed as one of their licensed partners. It is questionable whether or not Starbucks can be trusted to hold high labor standards considering that they have been involved in hiring prison labor, in which wages are far below the minimum wage; Kelly Davidson writes about this in her article The Insourcing of Prison Labor: Seven US Corporate Household Names Use Prison Labor to Produce their Goods on the Centre for Globalization Research website.

In theory Fair Trade products put more money into the products of producers who strives to raise labor standards. The idea is founded on consumer sovereignty, industry only follows demand. If enough consumers desired products that met specific labor standards then companies would have to comply accordingly. Non governmental organizations like Global Exchange and Fair Trade USA are information tools for consumers to direct their purchasing power in a way that can affect social change.

However, after acknowledging the lack of income family owned producers have made in Mexico, and the transnational corporate influence of Fair Trade Labeling Organizations the idea of Fair Trade is a farce; its purpose now is to serve as a marketing tactic that preys on the guilt of consumers. The consumer of fair trade products, usually middle or upper class women, according to Garvin Fidell (85), uses fair trade products to create an identity rather than affect change. Sociologist Colin Campbell describes the modern American consumer as “someone who selects goods with the specific intention of using them to create or maintain a given impression, identity or lifestyle” (Campbell 2005: 24). In the context of fair trade, the impression maintained is one of actively fighting for social justice, the identity is one of a social justice warrior, the lifestyle is glorified as capable of affecting change. Although “some practices of moral-selving are anonymous,” Mark Hudson indicates in his research article Political Consumerism in Context: An Experiment on Status and Information in Ethical Consumption Decisions, whether or not we engage in ethical consumption “relies heavily on the audience” (1017).  On a psychoanalytic level, individuals purchase fair trade products to ease their tensions about participating in an exploitative capitalist system.

Because most of the consumers of Fair Trade products are of higher income, this shows how Fair trade can only exist in a globally unequal society. The higher price required to fund a Fair Trade good, shuts off its access to the average consumer. Garvin Fridell cites Michael F Maniates when he claims that “If the 4 billion or more global under consumers are to raise their consumption levels to some minimally rewarding and secure level, the 1 billion or so global over consumers will first have to limit and then reduce their overall level of consumption to make ecological room” (Maniates 2002, p. 206). This shows how our global capitalist system does not allow everyone of every state consume at the same level of affluent northern consumers, simply because there are not enough resources for everyone to reach that high of consumption.

Relying on market driven solutions to raise working standards is an example of bourgeois ideology. It is the act of working within the ideological framework of the elites in our given society. Ernest Mandel elaborates on bourgeois ideology in his work The Leninist Theory of Organization by stating that “The dominant ideology of every society is the ideology of the dominant class in the sense that the latter has control over the means of ideological production which society has at its disposal (the church, schools, mass media, etc.) and uses these means in its own class interests.” He later asserts that “the exploited will, as a rule, tend to formulate the first phases of the class struggle in terms of the formulas, ideals and ideologies of the exploiters.” Consumers and non governmental organizations concerned with the working standards are reacting to the exploitation of a capitalist economic system within the framework of capitalism. As the shortcomings of Fair Trade labeling becomes more apparent as time elapses, newer more radical solutions will have to be considered if these organizations are solely concerned with labor standards.

Giving credibility to Fair Trade products as a solution to the inefficiencies of capitalism as an economic system simultaneously gives credibility to third-party fair trade labeling organizations and also validates the “good will” of transnational corporations. Since there is no certainty that Fair Trade products improve working standards, the labeling tactic is a marketing tool that allows affluent consumers to feel like they are combating inhumane corporate food production, which is a farce in a global capitalist economic system.

Works Cited

Campbell, C. (2005). “The Craft Consumer: Culture, Craft, and Consumption in a Postmodern Society.” Journal of Consumer Culture 5(1): 23–42.

Fair Trade USA.” Products & Partners | Fair Trade USA. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“Fair Trade FAQs | Global Exchange.” Fair Trade FAQs | Global Exchange. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Davidson, Kelley. “The Insourcing of Prison Labor”: Seven US Corporate Household Names Use Prison Labor to Produce Their Goods.” Global Research. US Uncut, 30 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.

Hudson, Mark, Ian Hudson, and Jason D. Edgerton. “Political Consumerism in Context: An   Experiment on Status and Information in Ethical Consumption Decisions.” American

Journal of Economics and Sociology 72.4 (2013): 1009-037. Web.

Fridell, Gavin. Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Market-driven Social Justice. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2007. Print.

Mandel, Ernest. The Leninist Theory of Organisation. London: IMG Publications, 1975. Print.

Mccook, Stuart. “COFFEE AND FLOWERS Recent Research on Commodity Chains, Neoliberalism, and Alternative Trade in Latin America.” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 43, No. 3. © 2008 by the Latin American Studies Association, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.

Princen, Thomas, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca. Confronting Consumption. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002. Print.