Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fairtrade fails and deceives: Part Two

Like I posted earlier, there are a whole host of reasons why Fairtrade creates perverse incentives and can hurt more than help. However, most of them come down to one major difference between Fairtrade and free trade - Fairtrade corrupts the price mechanism. Prices aren't just about "what it costs to buy something", they are signals about whether to increase or decrease production due to demand, whether to increase or decrease consumption, they inform about quality. They are the culmination of many factors, but ultimately are the culmination of free choices to produce/sell, and to buy. It is the ultimate democracy of the market, more than voting for a politician, it is voting for a product. Sadly too many do not recognise this.
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Price sends the following key signals, Fairtrade grossly distorts these:
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1. Prices for produce are partially a function of quality: The better the produce, the better the price, and vice versa. This rewards good farmers, innovative farmers and producers, and penalises those growing in areas less suitable or those less attentive (who should probably do something else).
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2. Prices are a function of supply and demand: Very low prices for produce reflect over supply relative to demand, which is a signal that some producers should stop producing or shift to other commodities/enhance quality or the like. Paying some regardless of quality and demand, suppresses prices for all others and encourages more to produce, creating a cycle of increased poverty. This particularly hurts those unable to participate in Fairtrade, but even if all were involved in Fairtrade, it would create a glut of unsold produce. Buyers would pay high prices, but would be turning away produce - which wouldn't get paid for, which may end up harming the most productive. Think carefully how much harm this could cause.
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3. Low prices encourage higher productivity: Producers of low priced products can decide to change what they produce or could become more efficient, so that their margins over cost are better at lower prices. This means taking steps to increase productivity, such as in Brazil where in the coffee sector mechanisation can mean five people can have the productivity of 500. The price is then shared between less people. What do the others do? Well they can produce goods and services that people will pay more for - perhaps Fairtrade activists could help them out to find what these could be rather than trap them in overproduced commodities?
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4. Paying high prices for Fairtrade products damages sellers of other goods and services: While you’ve been assuaging your conscience buying Fairtrade bananas or coffee, you’ve spent money on those goods that you might have spent on other items. Not only have you lost out on not having those, so has the producer of those missed out on you not buying them. Given the amount of the Fairtrade premium milked by others along the way, you might also question whether the high price didn’t largely benefit your local supermarket as much as the farmer. You might have bought more fruit and vegetables, you might have bought more meat, you could have spent more on clothes, holidays, or paid off your mortgage. In other words, a whole chain of people could benefit from what you save paying market prices.
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So how long will this Fairtrade charade persist? As long as you keep supporting it and not asking questions. Ask those supporting this why they encourage overproduction of poor quality produce in poor countries. Ask them why they encourage old fashioned means of production that keep people stuck in labour intensive jobs. Ask them how much of the Fairtrade premium goes to retailers and wholesalers, and don't take "not a lot" as an answer, ask for number. Ask why you should pay more to buy one product and then not buy another product, which also helps people making it?
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Make THEM think too!

1 comment:

sean14 said...

The Fair Trade zealots have infected the public service back here in NZ. In my Ministry we are using Fair Trade coffee and all those ignorant of the realities of economics are having group orgasms.

Try telling them that coffee producers can't get a high price for their produce because there is too much supply! It's like trying to have a discussion with the Al Gore-type true believers. It's amazing how quickly who purport to believe in democracy will resort to shouting you down with cheap insults.