Sunday, November 29, 2009
Have a Fair Trade Christmas
For the past few weeks our church here in Austin has been using the following video from Trade as One to encourage us to buy Fair Trade this Christmas season. (Which is one of the reasons I love our church here.)

The great thing about this is that it uses the system itself to work for justice. While undermining our consumer capitalist world-system may ultimately be necessary, it's not replaceable overnight, and those of us who are still going to shop for Christmas presents and still need to buy other things from time to time as well need ways that we can make a difference even within this system. So if you're going to shop, buy Fair Trade wherever and whenever possible.

BTW, for some reason as I watch this video, I keep thinking of one of the most ridiculous arguments against Fair Trade that I've ever heard, which is that Fair Trade won't work because it asks people to pay more for no tangible benefit to themselves except the "Fair Trade" label, and the warm fuzzy feelings they get from helping others. And yet we consumers choose to pay more all the time for even more ridiculous intangible benefits like designer labels, brand names, etc. and the warm, fuzzy feelings they get from being "hip" and "stylish" (even when you can buy something that looks exactly the same for a fraction of the price at the discount store down the road). If people can be induced to make purchase decisions for these sorts of silly reasons, why can't we hope that people can also be persuaded to choose Fair Trade items for much better reasons. And why not let it start with you and me this holiday season?

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posted by Mike Clawson at 4:05 PM | Permalink |


At 11/29/2009 06:16:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Yes indeed! As I've long contended, free trade and fair trade properly viewed are synonymous, as it's impossible to really have one without having the other, so I wholeheartedly endorse this approach to bringing about fair trade (as opposed to the self-destructive approach of thinking that limiting free trade will somehow make trade more fair).

However, I don't think that this group (or at least this ad) gets quite to the destination. They claim that they'll end the dependency of the world's poor, when really they just plan to change who they're depending on. As you note, they fall somewhat into the fallacy of assuming that fair trade involves paying people more than their labor is worth, which (issues of value subjectivism aside) is not a good way to end dependence long-term. While it's a useful stop-gap measure, long-term we need to rethink what we mean by value and (perhaps even more critically) institute some major land reforms. If the current fair-trade mantra is just to change the people whom the poor are dependent on, they may be making slavery more tolerable but aren't doing away with the underlying problem. Only when the massive (and in my opinion illegitimate) land monopolies are broken up will individuals really have freedom from dependence, as then they will trade only from desire rather than from necessity. Which in turn brings me back to changing our notion of value: the solution isn't to pay people more than their labor is worth, but to make sure we're paying the money to the right people: our current system is rife with government intervention granting middle-men monopoly status, to the detriment of everyone except for the governments and the middle-men: if you get free trade, you eliminate the monoplies; if you eliminate the monopolies, you get fair trade. And while the above strategy for quasi-fair trade is a good starting point due to the dismal current situation, it's not sufficient long-term since the middle-men are just going to figure out a way to up their cut.


At 11/29/2009 09:16:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I agree about getting rid of the middle-men, though there is still a question of what "labor" is "worth". In a purely market-driven economy the value of labor is driven entirely by supply and demand, so that someone's labor can end up of almost no value at all.

The problem with this is that the word "labor" obscures the fact that we're talking about people. Labor is not just some abstract means of production, it is real human beings. And there are those of us who believe that "labor" should therefore not be primarily tied to market-forces, but should instead be tied to what is necessary for a human being to live. Fair Trade thus seeks to address this kind of undervaluing of labor - saying that no matter what the "market" price of a commodity might be, we will choose to pay no less than a living wage to those who produced it. It's not about fixing the system, it's about refusing to exploit and take advantage of those who serve us by their labor.

As for fixing the system, that's a bigger and more complex issue, and I'm sure some of your suggestions will be helpful. However I will point out that "free trade" is somewhat of a myth. There cannot be free trade between nations when the rich countries have so many more starting advantages by which they can manipulate the system. Take farm subsidies for example. If the US signs a free trade agreement with a poorer, developing nation, there is no way that nation's agricultural industry can compete with ours, free trade or no, because we can (and do) simply drive down the prices of our commodities with massive government subsidies. "Free trade" thus just becomes an opportunity for the rich to once again gut the poor.


At 11/30/2009 09:59:00 AM, Anonymous Nathan

Good insight Mike - lots of people pay crazy premiums for brands that give them a sense of identity and self worth.

As for the poor becoming dependent on fair trade, err, aren't we all dependent on things? Better to depend on dignified work than on handouts, subsidies or fate.

Free trade is fine when nations of equal economic status enter such agreements. However, when poor countries are involved and lectured by the rich about the importance of free international markets, it is way too often a way for the rich nations to insist that the poor nations open up their fragile domestic markets to mega-farms subsidized by unethical European and US government subsidies, or to other industries that totally destroy any indigenous enterprises. Free and fair is what we need, just like in elections.


At 12/09/2009 08:48:00 PM, Anonymous Dan Kimball

Nathan George, who is the leader of Trade As One and the voice on that video is part of Vintage Faith Church. We had a Trade As One fair a few weeks ago here and I can say that it was extremely educational. So even if the middle-man disapears as mentioned in the comment here, the fact that Trade As One is educating churches and so many people is wonderful. I am thankful we had it here and that Nathan is part of our church as it (he) has personally influenced me in ways I wouldn't have been influenced otherwise.


At 12/13/2009 08:32:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

That's cool Dan. I didn't know there was a direct connection with Trade as One with your church. Let Nathan know that his video is making an impact here in Austin as well. Our church here (Journey Imperfect Faith Community) has similarly been blessed with the presence of a few justice activists who have been able to educate the rest of the church about their causes. (For instance, have you met Shelton Green from What's Your Response? yet?)


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