Fair Trade is a Bitter Brew for Anti-Capitalists

| 10/18/2011 4:51:31 PM


Remember when buying fair trade meant something revolutionary? These days, purchasing fair trade products is about as subversive as wearing a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt. Heck, you’ll even be able to add “one-of-a-kind handicrafts made by artisans in developing countries” to your online shopping cart on WalMart’s website, according to Huffington Post.

Coffee was one of the first—and most effectively marketed—fair trade products. As I write this, I’m finishing my fourth cup of fair trade coffee this morning—we usually brew two massive pots every day at the Utne Reader office. But fair trade coffee, a certified product meant to supplant the neo-colonial exploitation of farmers in the global South, has done little to impress free trade skeptics and anti-capitalists.

“While it may channel slightly more income into agricultural communities,” writes Ian Hussey for Briarpatch, a feisty, radical Canadian magazine, “it ultimately fails to address the colonial capitalist structures that produce the impoverishment of farmers on an ongoing basis.”

Hussey goes on to bullet-point the moral problems and historical discrepancies that color fair trade economics—including the hemispheric imbalance of international power, ambiguous certification rights, romanticization of the lives of the impoverished, creation of a moral higher ground, and perhaps most important of all, the misperception that buying fair trade is anything but another form of consumerism.

Where Hussey’s screed is brief and boisterous, Sushil Mohan’s Fair Trade Without the Froth, a book published in 2010, is detailed and “dispassionate.” Mohan attempts to determine how beneficial the fair trade movement has been to farmers in underdeveloped countries with a cool, non-ideological, scholarly eye. In the book, Mohan argues against the pot shots lobbed by both fair trade’s supporters and detractors.

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