I found this an interesting piece, particularly since it was in the Post. Coincidentally, I was just having a conversation about this with an older, very leftist colleague who’s working on his PhD in social justice and education.
The merits of Fair Trade schemes have been debated for a while now. Some people say “better than nothing,” others say “doesn’t do anything.” The pragmatist I am, I’m in the middle. Voluntary certification schemes such as fair trade are expensive, they are somewhat subject to corporate interest, they are costly, their credibility is mixed.
However, I often use the example of Starbucks to offer a point on this matter. People make the argument that as one of the largest whole bean coffee producers in the world, Starbucks has an opportunity to make a difference by sourcing its beans fair trade-certified. To date (and to my recollection) they’ve only 3 in their whole bean selection as fair-trade certified. (note: Fair Trade vs. fair trade is something Rohac doesn’t address and I think it’s an important distinction).
Yet Starbucks pays above-market value for all the beans it purchases (or so all the literature I’ve read by them indicates). So given the cost to get fair trade certification, given the outcomes, and given the fact that the rest of the beans are above-market value, does it make sense to complain about Starbucks for not producing enough Fair Trade coffee?
Furthermore, who is the certification appealing to? The informed or uninformed consumer? My take on it is that the informed consumer likely knows better, but the uninformed consumer is susceptible to these certification schemes with an understanding that they’re actually affecting change. And they are… marginally. However, the 95% majority of us under the bell curve are uninformed consumers — if not about this, then about something else. It’s obviously impossible for us all to be informed about everything, let alone any form of objective Truth.
What fair-trade certifications schemes do is partially inform consumers. Is that good or not? People have argued for universal suffrage, yet the partially-informed are allowed to vote as well. What does that mean for democracy? People like the right to choice. In my opinion, fair trade (or even Fair Trade) is better than not because it at least gets consumers thinking about their consumption patterns; the intentions are good. However, at the same time, more pieces in mainstream media like Rohac’s are necessary if consumers are to start considering the real outcomes of their ethical consumption.