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167. Throwing haymakers at Fair Trade

World Fair Trade Day is observed every year on the second Saturday of May.  Historically, it has been a time to educate consumers about the impacts of their consumer habits, motivate them to make socially responsible choices and celebrate the developmental advances of Fair Trade.  This year, it was the occasion for something else — critics taking wild swings at the Fair Trade system.

THE HEADLINES.

The most provocative headline over WFTD weekend came, not surprisingly, from New York Post, whose headlines can be witty, irreverent, suggestive, and even offensive, but are almost always memorable.  On the eve of WFTD, The Post humbly suggested that ‘Fair Trade’ is a crock.

Then the conservative Canadian daily National Post ran a guest column from a Toronto-based coffee roaster that was critical of Fair Trade — a piece that was later picked up by coffee tabloid Sprudge under the unfortunate headline “Study Finds Nicaraguan Fair Trade Farmers End Up Poorer”.

The problem, of course, is not critique of the Fair Trade model.  I believe it is vitally important to continue to examine the assumptions that underlie the approach and the claims of its impact, and I have published here some of my own personal reflections on the limitations and flaws of Fair Trade.

The problem with these articles, from my perspective, is that they selectively report details from larger studies in ways that obscure the realities that serious research was undertaken to illuminate in the first place.

“FAIR TRADE MAKES FARMERS POORER.”

The National Post piece, for example, is based on a thorough study published in the journal Ecological Economics — it draws on 10 years of data, surveys of more than 300 randomly selected smallholder farmers, more than 100 in-depth qualitative interviews, etc. — on the impacts of organic and Fair Trade certifications on coffee-related income.  From that work, the National Post excerpts a single passage, which it (mis-) uses to indict the Fair Trade system:

“Over a period of ten years, our analysis shows that organic and organic-fair trade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers.”

It is a chilling finding, to be sure, and one that requires serious consideration among people promoting these certifications as a strategy to reduce poverty and increase well-being.  But the study’s authors themselves don’t use the research to invalidate the Fair Trade or organic models altogether, but rather to test certain hypothesis about them and then, on the basis of their findings, identify specific complementary initiatives that could help smallholders farmers unlock the value of these certifications.  Look for a more complete analysis of the study here in the coming days.

“FAIR TRADE IS A CROCK.”

It is harder to take a balanced approach to the New York Post article, which didn’t seem to make any pretense about balance.  It was written by a Fellow at a research institute with a clear free-market mandate.  Unlike the spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry that drove the research for the paper published in Ecological Economics, the Post article cites only one piece of research — this four-year old study published by another resarch institute with an explicit market-oriented bent.  And even then, the article doesn’t seem to reflect the richness of the study, plucking one rather unexceptional observation from the middle of a longer paper that generates some helpful and constructive critiques.

COPING WITH COMPLEXITY.

In sum, there is plenty of material out there on coffee and sustainability that advances specific ideological agendas.  In my experience it is pretty easy for readers to spot this work and discount it accordingly.  But even balanced and impartial efforts to present complex research results in can end up distorting some of the nuances of serious research when presented in journalistic short-hand.

For coffee farmers, coffee professionals, and organizations like ours that try to help make the coffee trade more sustainable for everyone, it is imperative to engage the full complexity of the studies behind the headlines.  COSA — the Committee on Sustainability Assessment — is perhaps the most visible and impartial effort to systematically assess the state of economic, social and environmental sustainability in coffee.  It provides a sense of how much complexity is enough — it gathers data on more than 100 variables.

 

The National Post piece, for example, is based on a thorough study published in the journal Ecological Economics — it draws on 10 years of data, surveys of more than 300 randomly selected smallholder farmers, more than 100 in-depth qualitative interviews, etc. — on the impacts of organic and Fair Trade certifications on coffee-related income.  From that work, the National Post excerpts a single passage, which it (mis-) uses to indict the Fair Trade system.  (Unfortunately, Sprudge amplified the distortion with the title of its post: “Study Finds Nicaraguan Fair Trade Farmers End Up Poorer.”) 

“Over a period of ten years, our analysis shows that organic and organic-fair trade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers.”

It is a chilling finding, to be sure, and one that requires serious consideration among people promoting these certifications as a strategy to reduce poverty and increase well-being.  But the study’s authors themselves don’t use the research to invalidate the Fair Trade or organic models altogether, but rather to test certain hypothesis about them and then, on the basis of their findings, identify specific complementary initiatives that could help smallholders farmers unlock the value of these certifications.  Look for a more complete analysis of the study here in the coming days.

– – – – – – – – – –

It is harder to take a balanced approach to the New York Post article, which didn’t seem to make any pretense about balance.  It was written by a Fellow at a research institute with a clear free-market mandate.  Unlike the spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry that drove the research for the paper published in Ecological Economics, the Post article cites only one piece of research — this four-year old study published by another resarch institute with an explicit market-oriented bent.  And even then, the article doesn’t seem to reflect the richness of the study, plucking one rather unexceptional observation from the middle of a longer paper that generates some helpful and constructive critiques.

– – – – – – – – – –

In sum, there is plenty of material out there that presents complex research results in journalistic short-hand. Even when these articles are not driven by a specific ideological agenda and are motivated by a genuine desire to illuminate, the

2 Comments

  • Jeff Goldman says:

    Your thoughtful and balanced interpretation is the best response I’ve seen yet to the narrow and inaccurately sweeping criticisms of Fair Trade in the recent articles cited above. Both supporters and critics of Fair Trade seem to need more systemic evidence to even-handedly evaluate the pros and cons of Fair Trade in practice for millions of producers in over 70 countries.

    • Michael Sheridan says:

      Jeff:

      Thanks for the kind words here and your own contributions to the discussions on other blogs. More in the coming days on this study, which I do think is important and worrisome. Beyond this particular study, I think we need more research so that more future decisions by organizations — governments, donors, coffee companies — that have so much impact at origin are made on the basis of evidence and not ideology.

      Michael

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