Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fairtrade fails and deceives: Part One

"Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives"

That’s the legend sold with Fairtrade, on the Fairtrade Foundation website. It is about to be heavily promoted big time in the UK through Fairtrade Fortnight. However, Fairtrade isn't fair, or good, it is ignoring basic economics and is highly deceptive. It is hindering development far more than it helps.
It is often treated by the likes of the Green Party as an alternative to free trade, so it excuses protectionism (bans and tariffs on imports). You see they are ignorant of economics too.

What Fairtrade actually is about is an ideology of guilt-mongering to brand products on the basis of being “ethical” which are marked up for the “good” of all those involved, grossly distorting price signals and producing perverse results. In the Sunday Telegraph today, the Adam Smith Institute has announced the release of a damning report about “Fairtrade” called, aptly, “Unfair trade”. The Institute states “At best, Fairtrade is a marketing device that does the poor little good. At worst, it may inadvertently be harming some of the planet’s most vulnerable people”.
How so, you say? How can it be unfair to pay producers more for making what they do, in such poor countries? Well the report points to a number of major issues:
  • Fairtrade pays farmers to maintain uncompetitive farming methods rather than using modern techniques that can enhance production. Environmentalists might argue that those techniques are more environmentally sustainable, but the Fairtrade Foundation admits it has no programmes to encourage the use of technology in farming, of any kind. It even gives counterproductive advice, encouraging crop mixing, which hinders mechanisation.
  • A fraction of the Fairtrade premium charged to consumers reaches the producer, retailers pocket the rest as Fairtrade products are perceived as high yield and less price sensitive. In short, customers are more willing to pay for the “Fairtrade” label, oblivious as to whether the premium reaches the producer. The Fairtrade Foundation insists it ensures farmers are paid more than they would otherwise (no doubt retailers are too!), but do consumers accept the premium paid to everyone is fair?
  • Fairtrade only accredits farmers if they join together as co-operatives. Farmers working for Café Britt in Costa Rica are self-employed small business people who own the land they farm, but this is “unacceptable to ideologues at FLO international” Fairtrade’s certifiers. Café Britt has been refused Fairtrade status, even though its Costa Rican farmers have increased incomes by processing, roasting, packaging and branding locally as well. Fairtrade coffee, by contrast, is roasted and packaged in the EU.
  • The Fairtrade Foundation is seeking to dominate the trade, by seeking to monopolise the concept of “ethically branded” produce by persuading local authorities, companies, schools and the like to declare themselves “pro Fairtrade” at the expense of other brands claiming the same thing (like Café Britt). This has effectively limited the range of "pro producer" activities as the brand itself limits innovation to that approved by the brand. It also inflates the price by not having competing "fairtrade" brands.
  • Fairtrade supporters ignore the real causes of poverty amongst many growers by pursuing an ideological crusade against world market prices and multinational corporations. According to the Sunday Telegraph, coffee growers in Kenya interviewed by Alex Singleton of the Globalisation Institute told of being forced to used the monopoly milling and fertilizer companies, imposed by the state, and the high tariffs on imported tools that could assist production. Of course this could be addressed by free trade, but Fairtrade supporters are not interested in confronting poor country governments.
  • Fairtrade encourages poorer quality produce. As many farmers sell produce in both Fairtrade and open markets, farmers will often sell their best produce on the open market to secure the best price (as the open market is quality driven), and sell poorer quality produce on the Fairtrade market, as the price is guaranteed. The effect this has on quality for those selling entirely on the Fairtrade market is questionable at best.

Fairtrade is another example of good intentions paving a road to hell, as it is driven by an ideology distant from reality. It is driven by faith that the world would be a far better place if only those mean old markets paid people more for what they produce (low prices are unfair!!), with even more ideological baggage along with that. Part of it is environmental – the old adage that organic is better than mechanisation, and fertilisers are “bad”. Part of it is simply socialism – companies are bad, so farmers should all be in co-operatives. Beyond that is the basic rejection of the price mechanism.

Ah, you say, but if I want to pay more so that a farmer gets more, shouldn't I be allowed to? Of course you should. I'd let you set fire to your money if you wanted to (you're not allowed), but that doesn't mean you should necessarily feel better, or those that don't buy fairtrade are immoral - the truth may be quite the opposite.

So what does ignoring the price mechanism do?

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