Why Fairtrade is an unfair deal

Buying Fairtrade products may make consumers feel good, but in reality they amount to a PC-form of bonded labour.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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And now for the big news from the high street: confectionery company Mars has announced that the UK’s third-favourite chocolate brand, Maltesers, will from April 2012 carry the Fairtrade logo. You can almost hear the whoops of joy from those who frown upon plastic bags, drink ethically sourced coffee and think that having a KFC burger is a form of chicken torture.

No longer will they have to hide away in their larders, their muzzles pressed into a red bag of chocolate-coated, honeycombed pleasure, while their minds fill with guilt at the thought of all those who have toiled to produce each moreish sphere. Instead, they can sit outside, remove their packet of Maltesers from their ‘I am not a plastic bag’ bag, and stuff their faces, smug and proud. Because, finally, the lighter way to enjoy chocolate has become the right way to enjoy chocolate.

In the minds of those who literally buy into ethical shopping, the relationship between consumption and production has never been more magical. It is almost as if the conditions of production are present in the very act of consuming. Just think: with every purchase of a bag of Maltesers, or indeed the similarly Fairtrade-ified Cadbury’s Dairy Milk or the four-finger KitKat, ethical shoppers are not only getting some chocolate; they are helping out the poor cocoa farmers of the developing world, too. They are not just buying a lunchtime treat; they are ensuring that vanilla planters in Madagascar will be wearing big smiles as they grow and hand pick thousands of vanilla pods. They are not simply planning on seeing how many Maltesers they can get in their mouths all at once; they are sweetening the lives of Paraguayan sugar growers.

Fiona Dawson, the UK managing director of Mars Chocolate, was certainly convinced of the marketing benefits of getting in on the Fairtrade racket: ‘Consumers have been saying for many years that they want and expect big brands to do the right thing. They care deeply about where their food comes from.’ And now consumers will know where their food comes from because the Fairtrade logo tells them: it comes from places they no longer need to feel guilty about. This is literally ‘retail therapy’, where the righteous shopper gets their goods with a side order of penance thrown in.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to notice that there is something more than a bit narcissistic about ethical, Fairtrade-conscious shopping. It really is all about ‘us’. Yes, there may be a lot of accompanying PR guff about how our consumer choices over here are making their lives better over there, in Africa for instance. But as it is conceived here, the world of production, whether one is thinking of the harvesting of sugar beet or the farming of cocoa, functions as little more than a mirror in which we are encouraged to see ourselves – see ourselves, that is, as good, as morally virtuous. This is not feelgood shopping. This is feel-good-about-yourself shopping.

But in reality, is there much to feel good about? Is the me, me, me nature of ethical shopping blinding us to the reality of Fairtrade?

The purpose of the Fairtrade Foundation, we are told, is to guarantee that the producer gets a good deal. The Fairtrade-labelling system, then, is meant to assure us that, when we buy something with the Fairtrade logo, the producers get a better cut of the cash than they would do otherwise. So we effectively pay a little bit more – hence the price premium – to feel a whole lot better about our purchases. Or at least that’s the theory.

But as researchers pointed out earlier this year, the actuality of Fairtrade is not quite as easy on the self-regarding eye of ethical shoppers as the Fairtrade Foundation would have us believe. For a start, it has been suggested that only 25 per cent of the premium price paid for Fairtrade products reaches the producers. Not only that, already-poor farmers actually have to pay to join up to the Fairtrade scheme. And in doing so, they also have to ensure that their business meets certain requirements, whether it is in their long-term interests or not.

And here we come to the main problem. The Fairtrade Foundation demands certain things of the producers if they are to be accepted on to the scheme. For example, producers have to employ what the Fairtrade Foundation deems to be ‘environmentally sound agricultural practices’ and, to qualify as small producers, they have to ‘rely mainly on their own or their family’s labour’. It’s almost cruelly ironic: while champions of Fairtrade claim it is freeing producers from the exploitative relations of the market, it simultaneously ties them into the oppressive and exploitative moral relations of ‘us’ and ‘them’. They have to stick to the letter of ‘our’ vision of the world, in all its sustainable, anti-growth glory. That is, in exchange for a marginally better deal on the market, producers have to adhere to what the Fairtrade Foundation deems to be the right way of farming or harvesting.

This effectively condemns producers desperate for a bit more cash to a low level of material and economic development. In the Fairtrade vision of production, you can forget about the large-scale industrialised production of cocoa; you can forget about the crop-protecting usage of pesticides. What Fairtrade insists upon instead is small-scale cottage industry free of anything that looks too modern, let alone chemical. As Patrick Hayes noted on spiked a couple of years ago, citing a WORLDwrite film called The Bitter Aftertaste, Fairtrade locks many Africans into non-mechanised, back-breaking cheap labour ‘as they cull weeds by hand rather than being able to destroy them with chemicals’.

So while Fairtrade might make us feel good when shopping, it does nothing of the sort for those doing the producing. Which is something to bear in mind when enjoying a bag of non-Fairtrade Skittles.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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