Liberation pedagogy. Politics, current affairs opinions and rants from an anarchist teacher

Fair Trade or Mutual Aid?

In my latest post, we will be casting a critical eye over the fair trade movement to ask a few questions of the popular idea that it’s a viable solution to inequality and poverty amonst producers in ‘developing’ countries. While some fairtrade products are by no means a bad thing, we make the argument that it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and certainly provides no sustainable solutions to the problems it attempts to address.

Firstly, It’s worth saying that, if you have the spare cash, buying from a decent fairtrade supplier is of course a good thing to do, and in some ways worthwhile.

Before looking at the problems with fair trade in general, it’s worth looking at two distinct currents that have developed in the fairtrade movement.

On the one hand, you have the more ‘old-school’, grassroots brand of fairtrade. An attempt to give oppressed and exploited producers greater control over the sale and marketing of their products, not to mention a better cut of the profits. Many of these schemes, weather labeled fairtarde or not, have an ethos of solidarity and community empowerment above charity – the majority will not carry the Fairtrade mark. In recent years however, as fairtrade has gone mainstream, that ethos has changed. In many cases, fairtrade has become a trendy badge for big businesses to use to dress their products in a veneer of ethical credibility. For example, all Nestle KitKat bars now sport the fairtrade logo, while just one tenth of the chocolate used in their production comes from a fairtrade source. For a Nestle or Tesco producer, being told they work for a fairtrade employer must sound like a sick joke! The argument has been leveled (mainly from the fairtrade charity) that Nestle should be congratulated for ‘taking positive steps’, so should be rewarded with Fairtrade statues. This ignores the fact that now Nestle have what they want – the ‘ethical’ badge they felt they needed to wear, they are have no incentive to move in a more ‘ethical’ direction, even if they and other companies were structurally able to be ‘ethical’, which they of course are not. Leaving aside the fact that many big companies claim to fairtrade status is nothing more than a sham, it is also worth looking at what they mean by fairtrade, as it is a far shout from the original, nobler aims of the movement. For big companies, fairtrade simply means slinging a fraction more money towards the producer, who still remains in a position of complete subservience to the buyer. An empowered and confident third world worker is a nightmare for the corporations that get rich off their backs, so the focus of fairtrade has been shifted from solidarity and empowerment to charity – a matter of finace and wages instead of one which seeks to question and alter the relationship between boss and worker, exploiter and exploited.

Taking even the nobler of the two currents in fairtrade into consideration, there are still gaping problems with the scheme. The very fact that there has to be something called ‘fairtrade’, by default highlights the unfair nature of trade in the capitalist system. The capitalist system is hinged on exploitation of workers and the environment in the name of accumulating profit – that is what it does. Any attempt to reform it into a ‘fair’ system misunderstands the core functions and purpose of the capitalist system. Until workers are no longer in a position in which they are forced to sell their produce and labour to any form of boss, we remain, to a greater or lesser extent exploited. We’re not saying that fairtrade is a bad idea – it isn’t, but neither is it any kind of realistic long term solution to the plight of poor communities. What it offers is a short term fix for some of the world’s most exploited workers and producers without addressing what has caused their suffering in the first place. Real fair trade can only exist when we replace a system based on greed, exploitation and accumulation of profit with a system controlled by those who produce the goods that society depends on, based on real democracy, equality and justice for all. Unrealistic? Maybe, but a lot less unrealistic than holding out hope for the capitalist system to slowly reform itself into something it has never, and can never be – a force for social good.

As this is (allegedly) primarily an education based blog, we’ll finish up with a short paragraph from ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by radical Brazilian teacher and father of Critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire, who sums up the flawed logic of capitalist charity thus –

‘Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this.

In order to have the continued opportunity to express their “generosity”, the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order id the permanent fount of this “generosity”, which is nourished by death, despair and poverty. True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.’


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