Consumption is also a political and social act. Sometimes public awareness is all that is needed to create change. The boycott of British textiles spearheaded by Gandhi in the 1920s, that of bus companies practicing racial segregation in the USA in1955, and more recently the Greenpeace protest campaign against Shell’s plans to sink a North Sea oil platform are proof of the power consumers wield. Over the last few decades, a similar approach has been used by the fairtrade movement.
Fairtrade is a trading partnership that seeks greater equity in international trade. Its umbrella organization, Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), unites a group of labelling initiatives, the best-known of which is Max Havelaar. They operate by paying producers fixed minimum prices which usually exceed the market equivalent, permitting workers a decent standard of living without being subject to market fluctuations. This trading system also guarantees decent working conditions: forced labor and child exploitation are banned. For a company to receive Fairtrade certification it must meet International Labour Organization standards and report transparently on its workforce, manufacturing processes, prices, and profit margins.
In spite of this, a substantial portion of the cost mark-up is not passed on to the producers themselves; and the higher price of fairtrade products places them in a niche market. One could go so far as to say that fairtrade is not fair in the sense that the social welfare systems and salaries of the producers are substantially inferior to those of the consumers. Furthermore, fairtrade does not always respect the environment.
Fairtrade is therefore by no means a perfect way of bringing about change. Today it represents only a tiny fraction of world trade (less than 1%). But although it has limitations, it is raising consumer awareness of the injustice of the current trade system and encouraging companies to improve their ethical standards. You can vote with your credit card just as effectively as in the ballot box.
Le commerce équitable (extracts)
Published by Ed. Eyrolles (2004)