Fair Trade … Say What?

Maybe I'm just getting old. But I've been surprised at the plethora of new labeling at Trader Joes and Whole Foods these days (for those Europe- and Asia-based readers, both stores are upscale Western food markets that cater to a culinary and organically inclined clientele). In just a few minutes of strolling through the aisles and actually reading the labels last week, I realized that my vocabulary was evidently not up to snuff to be shopping in such an establishment. So I went back home and studied up, and now I'm a pro. For instance, while I sometimes now consider fruit that is bio-dynamically grown, I also often opt for the "sustainably" raised beef. At the same time, the wild "line-caught" fish no longer intimidates me. And the "free range" hens almost make me want to whip out the gold card on the spot. I can even swing things in the dairy isle, choosing between regular, Bht-free and organic milk.

But there are some terms that I will never understand. And one of those is "fair trade". What is fair trade, you ask? According to Wikipedia, "fair trade's strategic intent is to deliberately work with marginalised producers and workers in order to help them move from a position of vulnerability to security and economic self-sufficiency. It also aims at empowering them to become stakeholders in their own organizations and actively play a wider role in the global arena to achieve greater equity in international trade."

In other words, if you buy fair trade products, you're paying more because a farmer was paid above and beyond the "fair" market rate for their products. Correct me if I'm wrong, but given this, there's nothing "fair" about the price at all. Rather, it's an elevated clearing price because some sorry sot feels bad because her Land Rover gets 10 MPG. Buying fair trade products enables her to make up for her guilt by spending a few bucks a pound extra on nuts. Go figure. Adam Smith, there's no job for you here (except for detailing the Connolly leather interior of said SUV with organically safe, biodegradable products).

Now, trust me, here. I'm all for charity -- and improving the lives of poor farmers. On a personal note, I'm giving more away more of what I make on both an absolute and relative level than at any time in my life. But I have a hard time paying more than a market rate for what I buy in a store -- especially considering that fair trade products do not guarantee any level of quality (as any true coffee snob who has tasted Starbucks' horrific over-roasted fair trade beans will attest to).

As consumers and businesses in a free market economy, we have the moral obligation to do what we feel is best with our purchasing power -- not what a government or legislative body dictates (which is why I have such a difficult time with government mandated diversity sourcing). Given this perspective, in my view, fair trade is nothing but a racket that discourages poor farmers from improving quality -- enabling them to market their goods at a premium price -- or growing crops that would fetch a better value in the market in general. Hence, if you truly believe in free markets, buy at the market clearing price -- not a penny above. And let the invisible hand work its magical ways behind the scenes. Now that's fair trade.

Jason Busch

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