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What does the consumer know about fair trade?


                Fair trade can be fraught with problems when trying to determine the level of awareness of the consumer. Beyond the superficiality of not wanting to consume a product that was produced through human suffering, a somewhat nefarious and general assertion, what exactly does it mean to consciously seek out a product, coffee or tea, in the main, that is produced along fair trade terms? Put another way, how aware of fair trade as a system to foster alternate trade and justice in the supply chain, are consumers of at retail, online or otherwise?

               Before undertaking to qualify the answer, it’s worth understanding a little about what fair trade is and is not. First and foremost, fair trade is a system that, at its core is about trade equity between producer and consumer: exploitation, through low prices, are seen as being at the root of suffering on the part of the producer, who labours to produce goods consumed at unfairly low cost. As the producer cannot obtain fair prices, their social conditions suffer as a result: lack of proper sanitation, food security, education,  basic health care, are some of the problems resulting from low economic yield of their products. Worse, the supply chain, in the fair trade view, is rife with intermediaries, entrenched between primary producer and end consumer, siphoning off value along the way.

               The view, then, with fair trade, is a bleak one, that can be remedied only through guaranteed minimum pricing (of course, higher prices can be paid), and a social premium paid to the producer to build-out community services. Stronger relationships are fostered within the fair trade alternate trade system view, and assurance is obtained that the system functions smoothly through third-party certification of standards enabled from a central organization effecting formal rules that govern the system’s functioning both from the consumer end, and the producer supplier end: pricing rules, environmental stewardship of the land, labour practices, both of age, and underage of majority are some of the many areas that the system has rules for.

              Though beyond the scope of this brief post, the effectiveness of fair trade as a system and its goals, would seem on the surface to be noble and quite lofty. However, how can it be possible for a single system to effectively address both trade injustice on the one hand, and ensure compliance with third-party standards that look to ensure environmental care is taken in the production process by the cultivator, on the other hand (for example, standards that call for limited use of agro-chemicals, sustainable land management practices such as pest control systems that do not pollute, etc, by producers who's living standard may be low by their own domestic standards).

               The other obvious area of concern for fair trade, is what, beyond the basics mentioned above, do consumers know of and about fair trade when they take they consume products that are grown in the Global South? What motivation is present and how conscious is the consumer about their choice of whether or not to consume items produced and supplied on fair trade terms? In the second blog post to follow-up, we will begin to uncover what level of knowledge the consumer has through observation of consumers at retail hospitality cafe venues.

Matthew Healy
Matthew Healy


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