Is Fair Trade Fair?


This issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly looks at fair trade—the global movement in which North American and European marketers form partnerships with producers in the global South to ensure that low-income farmers and artisans earn a living wage for their work—and examines whether it is “fair” for indigenous peoples.

For some, in this era when free trade has triumphed over all other global economic models, the question is heretical. For others it merely is absurd. Most corporate, governmental, and other free trade proponents are not attuned to the interests of peoples whose cultures and values are radically different from their own. They divide the world into simpler categories: individuals and societies that already are benefiting from free market economics, and peoples who need wage labor or access to markets to “develop” and to lead “better lives”—lives more like theirs.

Fair trade was devised to ameliorate free trade’s harsh impact on the world’s poorest people. While anchored in free market economics, the movement imposes on fair traders the duty to pay producers at least a living wage, to promote democratically run producer cooperatives that are invested in their communities, to help producers obtain affordable financing and technical support, and to engage in environmentally friendly production practices. Fair traders are supposed to encourage the development of products based on producers’ cultural traditions, adapted for Western markets, as a means of preserving their cultural identity. And they are supposed to educate consumers about fair trade’s benefits for producers.

As measured by the interview data gathered for this issue, indigenous peoples agree that responsible fair trade is better than the alternative. But is that good enough?
Today’s free trade capitalism, with antecedents that extend back centuries to the voyages of discovery, conquest, and colonialism, is an anathema for many indigenous peoples. It is premised on the belief that land, equipment, materials, and even ideas are “property” that can be owned. It assumes that labor generates wages so that workers can buy the consumer goods and services they desire, not because the workers are invested in the products they produce. It disaggregates other human values such as extended family, ethnic identity, religion, politics, and culture, except through the assumption that if each individual pursues his or her own economic interest, society as a whole will somehow be better off.
Today, most indigenous peoples, like most people in the world, are caught in global capitalism’s grip. But that does not mean that they have absorbed its underlying values. Instead, they live with the dissonance of competing worldviews: one rooted in their indigenous cultures and traditions; the other imposed by external global economic forces. Often the discord between the two ways of understanding the world is so great that it cannot be rationalized. If the land, like the sea or sky or wild animals, cannot be “owned,” how can a legal system that has been erected to safeguard one person’s right to land to the exclusion of another’s be understood, let alone be availed of as a source of protection? If creative expression is the means by which we honor our ancestors and our gods, and pass our traditions on to our children, what consequences will befall us when we “adapt” traditional designs to appeal to Western aesthetics or sell our heritage to tourists? If the structure of a society is based on reciprocal, interdependent, face-to-face relationships, what will happen to that social fabric when depersonalized wage labor becomes the only means of survival?

Fair trade does not begin to address such fundamental questions. Even at its most inclusive, most transparent, and most capacity-expanding, it merely improves indigenous peoples’ access to an imposed economic system that cannot accommodate fundamentally different ideas about ownership, community, or social relations.

The articles in this issue spotlight the many positive aspects of fair trade. Unlike the mechanical, depersonalized free trade system, fair trade is founded on personal relationships between marketers who want to make a positive difference in the world and disadvantaged human beings who want to realize their capabilities. The articles also reveal the hurdles that must be overcome if fair trade is to be truly fair to indigenous peoples. These include ensuring that indigenous producers have relationships with multiple marketers, opportunities to diversify their businesses, and a complete understanding of all levels of their fair trade enterprise.

Of all the purposes of fair trade, perhaps the most important is educating consumers who have stopped asking questions. Free market capitalism may be the dominant economic model in today’s world, but that does not guarantee that it is the only model, or even the best model. Indigenous cultures offer alternative worldviews that can broaden all of humanity’s horizons when it comes to understanding what it means to “be developed” or “live a better life.”

Moreover, fairness matters! And to be fair, fair trade must both be fair, and seem fair, to everyone involved: indigenous producers, fair traders, consumers, and everyone in between. Even those of us whose connection with fair trade occurs only at the coffee shop or craft market can make a difference by asking questions such as: What matters most to indigenous producers? What do they regard as fair? How much input have they had into the design, manufacturing, and marketing processes? Do they possess the knowledge they need to participate in those processes, or even to decide to what extent they want to participate? Does fair trade strengthen the fabric of their lives, or merely ameliorate the fair trader’s and consumer public’s guilt about past and present exploitation?

By participating in a fair debate about such questions, by being open to answers that do not jive with our assumptions, by adapting our actions to the knowledge we gain, and by insisting that everyone along the chain of production do the same, we consumers not only can make fair trade fairer for indigenous peoples, but can engage in that radical process of enriching the quality of life for all of humanity.

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