Fair-trade coffee beans dry in the sun in Nicaragua, 2004. (William Neuheisel / Flickr)
Last month, the Fairtrade Foundation staged a march on the British Parliament, a campaign featuring various celebrities and more than 13,000 petitioners, urging UK Prime Minister David Cameron to put issues of ethical consumerism at the center of the upcoming G-8 summit. At first glance, the decision by self-proclaimed ethical consumers to buy fair-trade products seems harmless. What could possibly be wrong if individuals, exercising their right as consumers, choose to promote certain niche markets? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
Although the concept of ethical trade has existed for a long time, the institutionalization of the fair-trade movement did not begin in earnest until the late 1980s. In 1989, the World Fair Trade Organization was founded, and in the years that followed, various fair-trade certification and labeling processes emerged. A product is granted a fair-trade label once its producers have met a list of social, economic, and environmental requirements. The stated purpose of the fair-trade movement is to give economic security to producers in developing countries -- often of unprocessed commodities such as fruits, live animals, and minerals -- by requiring companies and consumers to pay a premium on the market price.
Until now, any questioning of the fair-trade movement has been limited to the micro level. The movement has faced repeated criticisms, for example, for the relatively expensive fees that producers must pay to get a fair-trade label, which make it ineffective for many poor farmers. Another area of concern is just how lucrative the process is for middlemen and retailers. Finally, several studies show that very little of the premium that consumers pay actually reaches needy producers. Consumers might be surprised to learn that only one or two percent of the retail price of an expensive cup
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