Acton Institute Powerblog

Fair Trade’s Faded Facade

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The Free Exchange blog at Economist.com (HT) concludes a long and thoughtful post on fair trade, specifically in response to this recent NYT article, “Fair Trade in Bloom,” by wondering:

And how does this affect coffee supply? If a premium is available for fair-trade coffee, shouldn’t other growers enter the market to take advantage of it until the price of coffee is bid down to market levels, leaving total producer take–baseline coffee price plus premium–where it stood before? Such a scenario would also raise distributional questions. If higher coffee prices attract market entrants, then coffee-growing nations will shift resources into that sector, which might be good for grower incomes, but could potentially inhibit the development of other economic activities.

Not to take anything away from the stated goals of the fair-trade movement or the well-meaning consumers who wish to do better by farmers in poor countries. Still, in any economic process, it’s often difficult to foresee the second- and third-order effects of a decision. It will be interesting to observe how growth in fair-trade products changes the structure of markets for targeted commodities.

These sorts of questions and concerns are at the heart of my past criticisms of the fair trade movement.

To the extent that fair trade certifiers are simply acting as agents to inform consumers and guarantee certain practices, to which coffee buyers can freely respond either affirmatively or negatively, there’s no real complaint. Fair trade becomes a boutique item that has to compete in the free marketplace.

But to the extent that the fair trade movement reflects a more thoroughgoing critique of market forces and the “fairness” or justice of market prices, it becomes more problematic. It becomes an entirely different paradigmatic alternative to a system of free trade.

You’ve essentially replaced market prices with arbitrarily determined prices, which are subjectively determined to be “fair.” Compare this with the traditional and classic scholastic understanding of a “just” price as the market value in the absence of any and all fraud and conspiracy.

The Free Exchange blog piece points out all sorts of negative consequences of the change from “just” to “fair” prices, not least of which is the increasing saturation of an already saturated market because of artificial subsidization of a particular commodity. Furthermore, it’s hard to see how it makes good economic and environmental stewardship to subsidize and promote the growth and production of a commodity of which we already have too much.

For more on the disconnect between the intentions and the consequences of the fair trade movement, check out this study, “Does Fair Trade Coffee Help the Poor?”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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