6 Common Reactions to Fair Trade (In Order of Ascending Cynicism)

6 Common Reactions to Fair Trade (In Order of Ascending Cynicism)

Watching the Gruen Transfer over the last few years has given a lot of us regular folk an insight into the games advertisers, marketers and PR people play.

It has been quite an educational experience watching Todd and Russell revel in their mastery of public perception, perhaps confirming many of our existing suspicions, but still leaving us a little more likely to question what is fed to us.

Since Palms Australia’s involvement in Fair Trade has extended for many years, from our PNG Arts store to The Fair Trade Coffee Company, we have keenly watched the efforts companies take, either to cash in, criticise Fair Trade or undermine it entirely.

Fair Trade is about guaranteeing a fair wage to the primary producers of the products we consume. The Fair Trade Association allows companies to use their logo only if they can survive an audit of all aspects of the supply chain – meaning, for example, that the cotton in a fairtrade t-shirt must be farmed by workers with certain minimum rights and the workers making the shirt must also have these basic standards protected; for a chocolate bar, the cocoa and the sugar must meet agreed standards.

Imagine you work for a company which makes millions every year from products which cannot claim to meet these standards.  How might you respond to questions posed to you about fairness and human rights?

While not being a clever marketing type, I can imagine a few possible responses and I suspect I’ve seen them all. In order from least to most cynical…

The positive embrace of the concept…

 “Wow, what a great idea. I’ve seen the light. From now on, I will make sure all the products I get from developing countries can meet the Fairtrade minimum standards. Then I can hold my head high and so can my customers.”

Note: This might mean a slight increase in price or a slight decrease in percentage profit, but it’s worth it to not be complicit in exploitation of workers.

The pragmatic, but possible reluctant, response…

“Hmmm… there seems to be a section of the market we are missing out on.  If we ‘go fairtrade’ we can increase our sales and potentially make more money.”

A little less altruistic perhaps, but still a legitimate response with a positive outcome. It does depend on consumers increasingly being informed about Fairtrade and choosing Fairtrade products. If consumers respond, they may make their entire range fair.

The denial…

“I believe I am a good person, I feel like I treat my workers well and even if I know I can’t honestly say all in my supply chain get a fair wage all the time and occasionally there might be child-labour involved, I can’t cope with the cognitive dissonance, so I’d rather write off Fairtrade entirely.”

It is genuinely hard to address the areas where you might be complicit in injustice.  This response is very common among both companies and consumers. Admitting our own responsibility for what we buy is a difficult step for many to take. “Deniers” need to be dealt with gently, lest they become anti-campaigners.

Tokenism, with a little greenwashing…

“We have hundreds of products. I guess we could certify one for these do-gooders. Then they can buy our product too. In fact, maybe if we disproportionately increase the advertising of our single fairtrade product we might be able to benefit from people thinking this somehow endorses our entire range or even our company as a whole.”

Most of the big coffee, tea and chocolate companies now have at least one fairtrade product. I can think of several times I have seen an entire wall covered with promotions about Fairtrade to find out that only one product is actually certified – and you need to specifically ask for it or you’ll just get the plain old probably-exploitative product. At its worst, they may deliberately make their fairtrade product bad quality, so that poorly informed consumers somehow conclude that paying people more somehow makes the product worse.

The anti-campaign…

“Fairtrade hurts people. I know because I have a complete fundamentalist faith in the unregulated free market. It encourages people to grow products which aren’t in demand [a demonstrably false argument I might take up elsewhere].”

Despite its inevitable conclusion like every game of monopoly ever played, free market ideologists will continue this line. They might even call Fair Trade ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ despite the fact that it is seeking no more than standards we have for workers in developed countries such as minimum wage, no child labour and other workers’ rights and is a fundamentally capitalist market-based system.

The self-certification aka the confusion and disillusionment of the consumers…

“I can’t or won’t reach the Fairtrade standards, so I’ll create my own system of certification which I can plaster on my products. That way no one will really know which system is more credible and they’ll become cynics and give up on this whole ‘demanding standards’ thing.”

An ethical stamp or a green logo are tried and tested methods of appearing ethical. Even brownwashing appears to increase credibility. Why this is so malicious is not just that it seeks to mislead the consumer into thinking Brand X or Brand X is ethical, but that it actually tries to exhaust the consumer’s commitment to being ethical, thereby making them say “I give up!” and reverting to the most common or most cheap product (which drives prices down, which drives workers’ wages down).  At its most cynical, the company may even be trying to taint the ethical movement with its own filthy reputation. At its most absurd, I’ve seen a logo, remarkably similar to Fairtrade certification, surrounded by the words “naturally high in anti-oxidants”, as if all coffee wasn’t, and another product (from the same company) labelled “Green” not because of any environmental standards but because they didn’t roast the beans fully.

The Fairtrade movement  still appears to be growing but that’s not to say the efforts of those with vested interests in underpaying workers, child labours, 16 hour days, etc. will not keep up their efforts to undermine it.  The key is to be aware of these strategies and continue to support the Fairtrade Association and promote Fairtrade products.  If those of us who support workers’ rights are aware of the strategies in play, it will make us more effective in countering the myths and disinformation out there.

What do you think? Have I missed any reactions?