Fair trade: the bitter aftertaste

spiked-film: A new film makes a timely and thought-provoking attack on an unquestioned orthodoxy of our age.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

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On 8 May 2006, I arranged a screening of The Bitter Aftertaste, a film shot in the UK and Ghana by first-time director Philip Thompson and a young volunteer film crew, working for the London-based development charity WORLDwrite.

The film calls into question the ability of fair trade to deliver development for poor countries. The screening was introduced by Ceri Dingle, director of WORLDwrite. For a documentary only about 20 minutes long, it provoked heated and intense debate among the 80 or so people who came to watch it. Selected for screening at the prestigious Raindance Film Festival last year, the film has attracted widespread notoriety for its criticism of one of the sacred cows of development thinking: fair trade.

Fair trade is a mechanism through which fair-trade companies try to ensure a guaranteed price to the producers of some specific primary commodities – such as cacao and coffee – regardless of price on the world market. Often, fair trade also includes the maintenance of certain labour and environmental standards. Probably like many vaguely radical, middle-class students studying development economics, I flirted with fair trade during my undergraduate days, when I could least afford it. At the time, fair trade seemed to be the natural complement to my combats and German army shirt.

My ethical consumption binge eventually wound down – partly because I just preferred Cadbury’s to the bitter dark chocolate that fair trade varieties always seemed to offer. I had no great epiphany, much less any conversion to free-market principles. I was partly turned off because there was something suspect about fair trade. Everything that fair trade had going for it – the promise that you could make a difference to poor farmers just by being a normal person shopping at the supermarket – seemed to me to be insufficient. Could anyone really make a difference by putting in so little effort? I eventually admitted to myself that I had no idea what real difference fair trade made to people in the developing world.

Even after this formative experience, I was still shocked by some of the footage in The Bitter Aftertaste. I had no romantic conceptions about poverty, but I still presumed that fair-trade produce would at least come off some sort of large, socialistic cooperative farm with better productivity and happier workers. Not so with the cacao farmers in Ghana. Indeed, to the untrained eye, it was difficult to tell natural vegetation from cultivated land, let alone having giant fields filled with teams of well-organised farmers. The sight of a solitary child hacking away with a machete, bent over double to the point of appearing deformed, was shocking.

But the film crew did not merely go to see where the cacao comes from. They also investigated the place of fair-trade produce here in the UK, interviewing economic experts and systematically interrogating each of the principles of fair trade. This part of the film included some of the most astonishing footage of all – including an interview with a representative of the fair-trade movement admitting that they had no policy of introducing mechanisation on their farms. In other words, no effort was being made to plough some of those putative extra gains from fair trade back into raising the productivity of the farm workers, and offering them the possibility of getting more money for more produce.

The film also pointed out that fair-trade organisations are actively campaigning for the use of organic fertilisers, flying in the face of a Ghanaian government campaign to introduce chemical fertilisers that would increase yields. As if suddenly realising the absurdity of a no-mechanisation policy, the fair-trade official being interviewed went on to rationalise the policy, arguing that most farm workers enjoyed their job, having the opportunity to work together in their community. In this respect, the sheer unremitting drudgery of subsistence agriculture was perhaps the most overwhelming impression left by the film, and eloquently conveyed in the impassive, weary faces of the farm workers – a very different image from the usual TV fare of Africans depicted as smiling, happy-go-lucky tribesmen at one with nature.

It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the claims of fair trade are bogus. Indeed, the very name seems a misnomer, suggesting that justice has been definitely achieved just by spending a few extra pennies that fair trade guarantees above the market price. It seems to me that, ultimately, the goal of fair trade is to tickle the ethical conscience of the genteel Western consumer, more than it is to lift primary producers out of poverty. In the discussion following the film, the point was often raised that, however limited the gains from fair trade, it certainly did not cause poverty and perhaps provided a springboard to further development. But this only begged the question of why bother with fair trade at all? As Ceri Dingle made clear, the most pernicious element of fair trade is how it lowers the horizons of development thinking overall, and thus serves to perpetuate poverty.

Instead of industrialisation, fair trade offers a concessionary, piecemeal form of advancement, while genuine social development is effectively postponed to some indefinite later date. In the process, Westerners are encouraged to see the developing world as a gigantic farm to satisfy their needs, rather than seeing the people of the developing world as individuals in their own right, with aspirations no less than any other people the world over.

The Bitter Aftertaste is a timely and thought-provoking attack on one of the unquestioned orthodoxies of the age – the idea that the isolated consumer can make a difference to poor people on the other side of the world. For this reason alone, it deserves a wide and diverse audience, so that the debate about development can be taken far beyond its current platitudes and restrictions.

Philip Cunliffe studies international relations at King’s College London. Email him at For further information about WORLDwrite and The Bitter Aftertaste, please visit the WORLDwrite website.

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Topics Politics


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