Fair enough

Some truths seem to be more self evident than others. Some truths spread better than others. It seems self evident to me that paying farmers a fair price for their produce, making sure that they can actually sustain themselves and their families with their labour, is a good thing to do.  Conventional produce, that which is not certified fair trade, may be produced using child slavery (like cotton from uzbekistan, coffee and chocolate from the Ivory Coast). Large companies may control the market such that farmers get paid a pittance, can barely afford to feed their families, much less educate them and care for their health.

Fair trade goods are available – these days even in the major supermarkets. Yet they have still barely penetrated the mass consciousness of our society. I swore off conventional tea, coffee and chocolate when I read about child slavery. There are plenty of high quality fair trade alternatives (try Alter Eco’s mocha, or their Dark Velvet – mmmm! Lindt be damned, this is chocolate!). Can you imagine allowing someone to enslave your child? Or enslaving someone else’s? Yet this is what we do when we buy these products, whether we are aware of it or not.

So why hasn’t fair trade taken off? Why is it not the dominant market force? Is it simply that advertising is too potent? That we all suffer from compassion fatigue and don’t think about it, because it’s all too hard? Are we believing the neo-liberal economic rationalists who would have us believe that all trade is fair, market forces will sort it out, and the global financial crisis was an aberration caused by really nasty people, nothing to do with a system whose fundemantal design flaws appear to be completely hidden by its superficial design flaws (thanks Douglas Adams)?

It could be to do with our natural tribal instinct to care more about things happening to “our tribe”. People like us trigger a response quicker than people who look different and live a long way away. It’s far easier to label people as different, than to consider that there, but for an accident of birth, go I. What if we had been born on the Ivory Coast? What if we were growing up in Uzbekistan?

I suspect that the real answer is that we are busy, and tired, and thinking of other things, and when we shop we grab the most recognizable packet, which is the one most heavily advertised. Marketing is effective – that’s why companies spend billions on it. So until the fair trade movement can afford to spend those billions, fair trade produce is unlikely to be successful enough to afford to spend billions on advertising… damn. Catch-22 with horrendous consequences.

What can you do, besides wring your hands? Buy fair trade. Ask in cafes if the coffee is fair trade (and be prepared to explain fair trade to them!). Talk to your friends about the benefit of fair trade. Blog about fair trade. Shout fair trade from the rooftops. And check out the Oxfam shop ( http://www.oxfamshop.org.au/ ) for tea, coffee, chocolate and gifts. They call them “gifts that give twice”, although I think they actually give three times, because I get a lovely warm glow when I find the perfect gift and know that the artisan who made it is earning a living wage!

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