The other day my wife and I had the morning off together – a rare occurrence. To celebrate we decided to go to a different Coffee Bar from our usual haunt, one located on the far more affluent side of town. The place has a new owner, and since she took it over has a very different customer base. The former base was mostly blue collar workers, artists and musicians. The new owner upped all the prices, altered the menu, and started carrying “Fair Trade” everything. Now who wouldn’t want to indulge in an espresso sans guilt . . . ?
The new customers are hipsters and yuppies in their thirties as well as members of the limousine liberal class all in their late 60’s and 70’s, or, as I like to say, the last group of hipsters. What did Jack Kerouac say about aging hipsters?
This morning the owner was having a Holiday Fair Trade craft fair. In placing my order for a $5.00, 12 ounce mostly foam Mocha, and Jeanette’s equally expensive Chai, I heard the phrase “Fair Trade” four times. “Oh, excellent choice the tea for the chai is “fair trade;”” “Mocha a perfect choice because as you know, all of our coffee is “Fair Trade;” “Our chocolate we put in the Mocha is Fair Trade; “And please don’t forget to browse our Holiday Fair Trade craft fair.” Something about all that “ethical consumption” effected my psyche like a surfboard forming rasp across raw tender skin. We sat down at a table and were accosted by a pleasant man in his seventies who attempted to sell us his Indonesian made Fair Trade Jewelry. “Did you make it?” I asked. He began to explain to me all about the exotic people who made it. I told him. as a policy, I only buy jewelry from the people who make it.” His response was “But it’s Fair Trade. “Somewhere from deep inside of me I said something terribly politically incorrect: “A fair trade is one where the producer and the buyer are in equal bargaining positions and come to an agreement. This isn’t that. no thank you.” That of course was a mistake. He attempted to educate me. I informed him I was here to drink my coffee, not experience his sales pitch. He really did seem terribly injured. I expected (well, a part of me hoped) he would fold into a fetal position. Instead he started rearranging the photos on the wall behind me and asking me to move so he could take cell phone pics of the art for his wife.
So as I was being annoyed while attempting to enjoy my small, overpriced, over-foamed, virtue ladened Mocha, I began to ask myself what is it about all this “Fair Trade” that keeps pissing me off deep down inside? Where is the cognative dissonance coming from? Why do I feel like it’s a scam by lefty trust fund babies to fleece me, while they pretend to not be the third world exploiting mercantilists that they are? Isn’t fair trade a better deal for those third world producers?
I finally figured out where the unspoken injustice of this entire situation is: The products are being sold for FIRST WORLD PRICES, but the WAGES to PRODUCE them are still at a THIRD WORLD rate. Perhaps, a better third world rate. Perhaps. a third world rate with some local improvements “beneficently” provided by associated not for profits or the Fair Trade traders at their choice, but none the less a third world wage. Perhaps, better third world working conditions, but still not first world conditions. Calling it Fair Trade doesn’t make the unearned increment taken from the producers’ labor and deposited into the importers pocket, any more fair, or any less exploitative.
This, of course, is the ENTIRE point of the global economy, not to raise workers wages, living standards, working conditions or hopes, but to chase around the globe for the most desperate, most powerless, most impoverished, most grateful to just subsist workers who will as inexpensively as possible produce goods to be sold in the First World for as high a price as possible. Fair trade is just a slightly nicer form of exploitation. It’s the equal of the slave master who painted the slave cabins instead of leaving the walls bare. Not really much of a difference.
For those on this side of the fair trade deal, Charles Hugh Smith aptly stated in his 2010 essay entitled The Inherent Problem With Offering Specific Advice:
“It is particularly difficult to decide what to DO to prepare for the future we see, when so few other people around us see it. We feel quite alone. Most of the people we know have a definite interest in living an ethical and environmentally less damaging life, but they are still focused on recycling, fair trade coffee, and finding a way to run cars and the suburban lifestyle on something other than gasoline.
Talk to them about “a fine-grained, earth-centered, decentralized and localized community,” or talk to them about cohousing or some sort of mutually cooperative/supportive living arrangement intentionally chosen by a group of people, and they look at you as if you have just spoken in some obscure foreign language. . . .”
Fair Trade won’t be fair until all the world’s workers earn the same wage, have the same working conditions and the same legal protections. Until then, it’s just another Multi-national Capitalist con job.
By Steve Lamb