Monday, December 13, 2010

Free ≠ Fair

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Yesterday's Family Tree comic pokes gentle fun at those of us (and I'm guessing the artist is among us) who are sometimes a bit paralyzed by the desire to be conscientious consumers. It is similar to an obscure folk song with which I start some of my classes, "It Ain't Easy Being Green" by a group known as The Pheromones. As with Wilkinson's comic, it finds humor in the effort to be socially and environmentally responsible while living a comfortable life in a rich country. I play the song as an inoculation against both smugness and sentimentality. As I have written recently, consumerism is inadequate as a sole method of working for social change, but I still favor efforts to make our consumerism more responsible if we can.

I posted this comic because many who know of my support for fair-trade coffee accidentally refer to it as free-trade; the terms sound alike, and both sound vaguely positive, but they could not be more different. "Free" trade refers to trade without barriers, and has been promoted by a broad cross-section of mainstream political leaders in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, as well as elites in developing countries. The movement toward free trade began with the reduction and eventual elimination of tariffs (taxes on imports), so that one country could not "protect" its industries against those of other countries by imposing punitive taxes. Once those taxes had been largely eliminated, however, attention turned to other government policies that could be considered "barriers," which has included many labor, health, safety, and environmental laws. Although equal levels of protection at any level would serve the ideal of free trade, in reality "free trade" has been associated with a race to the bottom, as almost any regulation can be viewed as a barrier to trade.

Beginning in the coffee industry more than 20 years ago, "fair trade" has been a reaction to this tendency. The race to the bottom has been deeply unfair to producers of coffee (and many other goods), in part because the conventional model of free trade violates two key but often-ignored assumption of neoliberal economics: equal access to information and an ability to seek favorable prices, on the part of both buyers and sellers. Nothing could be further from reality for coffee farmers.

Fair trade benefits both buyers and sellers by making the connection between the two more favorable, and by ensuring that good suppliers have incentives to maintain their production standards and volume. Fortunately, as the comic implies, fair trade is no longer limited to coffee!

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