Oasis Magazine Articles

Is there Fairness in Fair Trade?

By Amy N. Pugsley

“Goods produced under conditions which do not meet a rudimentary standard to decency should be regarded as contraband, and not allowed to pollute the channels of international commerce.” - Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States

Fair trade has been a buzz word for the last decade with labels popping up on everything from bananas to cotton. With this buzz around the idea of fair trade many people felt it was their duty to jump on board and show support. But what is fair trade and who benefits?

Fair Trade 101

In the simplest of terms, fair trade is the idea that a producer in the developing word is paid a fair wage for his work or harvest. In our current capitalist system and globalization, the producer is often left out of the equation, making pennies while corporations and middle men make millions in profit. The most common fair trade items seen on grocery store shelves are items like coffee, bananas, cocoa, and chocolate – which are labelled so customers know they are supporting a system rooted in social justice. Given the choice, who could say “no” to providing better wages to those living in poverty?

For those fortunate enough to be born in the developed world, the last two decades have brought forth a lot of guilt, and global issues like war, poverty, genocide, famine, and other catastrophes have made it hard to ignore the haves and have nots. However, development economist Ndongo Samba Sylla has concluded that the fair-trade label movement has accomplished more in easing consciousness in the “first world” than making actual serious and long-term changes in the “third world”. The model rooted in social justice principals isn’t living up to the expectations set on its shoulders by the west. In the end, fair trade prices are much higher than the competition leaving people feeling cheated that their money didn’t go towards making serious life changes for those in need.

Interestingly, academic theory backed by research shows a growing consensus amongst experts that fair-trade coffee is one of the least effective means of poverty reduction. 13 years of data collected from fair trade cooperatives in Guatemala shows the long-term benefits to be essentially a big zero, with the data showing a far different story than the narrative presented to the public. The fear is that the fair-trade label has become a status symbol for those on the consuming end, rather than an effective means of rendering the system of globalization fair. Has fair trade succeeded in leveling the playing field, or is it just another marketing gimmick?

Who Benefits?

The arguments around fair trade practice are rooted in international trade agreements, economics, and development strategies, which results in the average person being quite far removed from the process. When you buy a $7 cup of coffee in Toronto or New York, how do you really know what happened in Ethiopia during the harvest of the beans? How is the coffee you’re drinking helping? If it isn’t helping anyone, is the price worth it? Truthfully, few fair trade products come from the world’s poorest countries; most products come from middle income countries. While to a citizen of the developed world, poverty looks like poverty worldwide, the truth is that not all poverty is equal. Fair trade should focus on the poorest of the poor, rather than the moderately poor. The other major issue is how the current fair trade systems fail to address the root of poverty in a multifaceted nature; instead it just applies a Band-Aid to a gushing wound. This ill-conceived design essentially costs more than its supposed benefits. Many key development areas like healthcare, education, infrastructure, women’s rights, and democratic governance would yield higher long-term outcomes.

Fair Trade in Egypt

Some may wonder how this debate affects expats living in Cairo. The fair trade conversation looks different here in Egypt, and is more focused on supporting handicrafts production from all corners of the country. Fair Trade Egypt, for example, is Egypt’s only fair trade certified producer and retailer, selling more than a thousand products produced by local artisans from Sinai, Siwa, Aswan, Fayoum and more. These beautiful pieces of art are not only handmade and of the highest quality, but provide producers with the capacity to build and train on the level needed to compete on international market standards. Handicrafts and fair trade art seem to be doing far better to help support the artisans than commodity markets have done to support farmers.

Fair Trade Egypt has two locations in Cairo, in Zamalek and Maadi and is currently a member of both WFTO Africa & Middle East and WFTO 'World Fair Trade Organization. The philosophy of the non-profit is simple. They want to keep the arts and crafts alive in Egypt in order to help prevent their disappearance, but also provide the artisans a fair wage and means to sell their goods. While the debate on the overall benefits of the model needs to be considered, the type of product purchased with the fair trade logo is also something to consider. While ultimately the international model for fair trade is hotly contested and needs to be scrutinized for its sustainability, here in Egypt, it indeed does its job supporting local Egyptians as they knit, sew, and weave beautiful pieces of art for a “fair” price.

Embroidery is one of the few genuine heritages Egyptian women share all across the country. It’s one of society’s handicrafts reserved for women. Through this type of art, ladies express their thoughts, beliefs, life concepts, and their relationship with their surroundings through something as simple as a needle and some colored fabrics.” - Amira Nabil, Fair Trade Egypt

Most Common Fair Trade Items

  • Bananas
  • Coffee
  • Sugar
  • Cotton
  • Cocoa
  • Tea

Learn More:

There are 0 Comments

There are currently no comments, be the first to post one.

Post Comment

Only registered users may post comments.

Something to say? Choose one of these options to log in and comment.
Thanks to all supporters