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About Fair Trade
Fair trade is a relatively new concept, a popular response to corporate-centered free trade regimes such as NAFTA. Fair trade has quickly become a sort of catch-all phrase that includes concepts like fair wages, living wages, sustainability - or simply the opposite of free trade. Within the burgeoning fair trade movement, there is a great deal of latitude regarding definitions and objectives. Especially in the US context, fair trade is often defined as a market-based approach to sustainable development that provides producers in the global South with fair prices for their products. In part because of this reliance on capitalist markets and in part because of the emphasis on prices, many activists in the global South shun the term fair trade, instead preferring to use terms like moral economy or alternative economy1
I worked not to long ago for a coffee shop owned by one of the leading Fair Trade coffee companies of the country and definitely the most well know in Northern California. What I noticed was this; the owners felt really good about themselves for being so progressive and making such a difference in the world through their Fair Trade business. They hired mostly young women for their coffee shop and did not offer benefits. They often cut our hours on a whim, perhaps cause they decided to hire a friend's son to teach him responsibility or something similar. Of course youngsters who don't have to work to survive (which was the case often), usually don't work very hard, and all the workers who actually had to work for a living would pick up the slack as their hours were cut to accomodate these young men. Of course it is their store and they can run it however they want here in the land of the free.
But more than all this is; the people the owners professed to assist, the coffee farmers, were still poor while they had become millionaires from this so called 'fair trade' business. Is that fair? It's better than total despair on the coffee growers part, but it doesn't confront the crux of the problem.
Fair Trade, as in the Fair Trade movement, is based on the market based capitalist system that we currently live in, be it a more gentle capitalism. Fair Trade is in the same ranks as the "Green MBA." "How can we exploit workers and grow capital and still feel good about ourselves?" Perhaps this critique is too harsh, but just hear me out. Capitalism is about accumulation and this accumulation has never been based on any sort of equality, respect or interest in human wellbeing. The majority of the world lives in poverty and this is not caused by scarcity, but capital's need to grow, to accumulate labor, sweat, products, etc. to survive. Capital grows on the blood and sweat of the poor.
So, Fair Trade is not fair. Perhaps a better term to use would be Fairer Trade. Yes, to produce for the fair trade industry is generally better. However, speaking to the folks at Mutz Vitz coffee cooperative in Chiapas a while back gave me some insight. These folks worked constantly to survive. No time to go on an outing to the Zoo, no evenings of fine dining. They worked, from children of five years to grandmother, they all worked. And they were poor. They also told me about the time that the non-fair trade price of coffee surpassed the price of fair trade coffee; that in fact, the price of fair trade coffee hadn't adjusted in 14 years and the price of Fair Trade coffee at the point of sale had risen by a couple of dollars per pound, due to the "consumer consciousness." At this point in time, Fair Trade, like "organic," "sustainable," "green," etc. have become advertising points that allow companies to sell their products for more money. Case in point: Walmart has an Organic food brand and Starbucks sells Fair Trade Coffee. Our movement for a more just society again has been usurped.
This is not to say Fair Trade is evil. It is just to say that it rests on the same old capitalist system. Fair trade is better than the everyday exploitation of our current system, it however still plays by the rules, rather than breaking out of the mold of exploitation. Let's think outside the box...write a new story...make a break for the horizon. It is time to build another world.
About the items sold on this site and in our store: We sell items from the Zapatista Cooperatives. Though sometimes our stuff is referred to as Fair Trade, we go beyond the capitalist fair trade movement. Firstly, we believe that the worker should be the one to set the price. Since there is no capitalist importing these items with the labor of more workers, and the store owners are also the workers of the store, there are no non-workers waiting for their cut (the non-worker's cut is often the largest of all). This is really the only way that anyone can be paid a fair wage in our current economy. The reason that folks are underpaid as producers of products, as the manual labor and as retail clerk is because all the non-working capitalists need to get their cut along the way. So the Zapatista Women set their price. I set my price, but even the price one pays in our store is negotiable. Why would I charge someone who works 10 hours a day as mowing lawns the same price as I would a CEO of a company? $50 for one person could mean a days work, while to another no more than the bottle of wine they drink at dinner. We try to think, "What seems the most fair." Even better is the sale of items without the exchange of money. Barter is the best system to undermine capitalist exploitation. Fair trade can only really mean that no one is a slave.
Unfortunately many folks cannot afford to pay a fair price for an item of clothing. Many folks that work full-time can't even afford to support themselves and they depend on Social Services to make ends meet. These minimum wage workers are forced into a vicious circle of only being able to afford to buy items that are super cheap because they were produced through the super exploitation of other workers. If the capitalists would just stop taking thier huge cuts for thier non-work then workers would be able to support themselves and eachother...
1 From Alternative Economy Overview by Mexico Solidarity Network. This is a very informative article and website. Read more at