During our week-long excursion around Ghana, we spent an afternoon shopping at the Arts Center in Accra. Unlike most other markets in Ghana, the Arts Center was occupied exclusively by tourists browsing for souvenirs. As I walked down each aisle, vendors persistently ushered me into their stalls to buy their products. Most of them would not take no for an answer the first time. After an hour of shopping, I left the Arts Center with a small wooden carved elephant, originally 50 cedis but I bargained it down to 30. As I exited the Arts Center, I saw a sign promoting “the development of fair trade in West Africa.” This immediately stood out to me because the Arts Center did not at all align with my previous conception of fair trade. What seemed like hundreds of vendors desperate for one sale to a group of young foreigners seemed demeaning, and not at all fair. Vendors at the Arts Center can go two weeks without making a single sale, making livelihoods sporadic and unsustainable even in a market that promotes fair trade.
According to the Fair-Trade Certified website, “Today’s global market enables- often encourages- compromise at the expense of farmers, workers and fishermen.” To combat this, the fair-trade movement was started in order to promote a fair, equitable, empowered, and sustainable global marketplace. When a product is fair-trade certified, buyers are assured the product was produced “in a socially and environmentally responsible manner” (Dragusanu et al., 2013). However, my experience at the Arts Center has led me to question the effectiveness of fair trade in developing countries and my larger role in the global marketplace. On many occasions in the United States, I have bought a cup of fair-trade coffee or a fair-trade chocolate bar. There is a certain sense of pride and responsibility that comes with these fair-trade purchases. I felt better about myself that I wasn’t taking the cheaper route and was spending my money on something beneficial. I think this type of “fair-trade branding” is becoming more present in the United States, with multinational corporations such as Starbucks joining in. However, I think a disconnect exists between how fair trade is marketed to Western consumers and the actual effects of fair trade in developing countries. The posters of smiling coffee bean farmers hanging in Starbucks significantly differ from the vendors I encountered at the Arts Center, who are continually turned down and ignored by buyers, a feeling I imagine to be exhausting and frustrating.
Despite some negative aspects, the fair trade movement has the potential to “improve the welfare of consumers, the lives of producers, and the local environment” when implemented correctly (Dragusanu et al., 2013). Nonetheless, I think it is important to understand the actual conditions and consequences of fair trade, beyond what is marketed to us. In many Western countries such as the United States, fair trade is marketed as a tool for social mobility, reducing poverty, and preserving local culture. However, I think fair trade branding is also used as a marketing technique to pull buyers in and make them feel better about their purchases. Whether you’re buying a cup of fair-trade coffee from Starbucks or an elephant souvenir at a local market, I think there is a hazard in becoming too complacent with these labels. Consumers, including myself, can often feel like they’ve done their part to help the “third world” when they make these purchases, rather than acknowledging the way in which labor and goods are extracted from the third world in order to benefit Western nations. The historical process of extraction has characterized the core-periphery relationship since the Colonial era and continues today through the Capitalist system. Trade can therefore never be “fair” until this process of extraction is halted and we acknowledge that we, as Western consumers, are the reason fair trade must exist in the first place.
Read from the fair trade website here: http://www.fairtradecertified.org/why-fair-trade
Read about the effectiveness of fair trade here: http://www.scholar.harvard.edu/files/rdragusanu/files/jep_firstdraft_sept10_2013.pdf