Posts tagged with: fair trade

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A constant theme here at the Acton Institute is the idea that good intentions are not enough…they need to be connected to sound practice.

In a reflection on fair trade at WORLDmag.com, D. C. Innes commends Victor Claar’s monograph, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

Fair TradeInnes, an associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, writes,

It’s admirable that people wish to better the lives of coffee growing peasants. I also applaud their use of private initiatives and organizations. But before scorning their neighbors for not sharing their means, and before trying to turn the world inside out and upside down on the basis of an adolescent “why not?” they should make sure that the vehicle they have chosen for their dreams actually does what it’s supposed to do, and doesn’t do more harm than good.

Check out Claar’s book for more on the intentions, challenges, and realities facing the fair trade movement.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, July 19, 2010

The NYT Freakonomics blog notes that the Fair Trade movement does not exist independently of the laws of economics:

But the problem with Fair Trade coffee is that as the program scales up, the alternative market ethics it wants to sustain collapse. Inevitably, the Fair Trade market becomes subject to the same laws that drive the conventional commodities market. When the price of coffee drops, the appeal of Fair Trade’s price support lures growers into the cooperatives that sell coffee under the Fair Trade label. As poor growers rush into Fair Trade agreements, the supply of Fair Trade coffee rises. Protected by the price floor, the Fair Trade coffee remains inflated despite flagging demand. What Fair Trade importers thus end up doing with the excess Fair Trade coffee is dumping it—upwards of 75 percent of it!—on the conventional market.

This is a huge problem for Fair Trade. Essentially, to be successful, it must, as I have stated in the past, “argue for a complete standardization of its price-fixing methods.”

Fair TradeThis gets at the paradox of religious support for Fair Trade. It makes those who argue so vociferously against “consumption” as an evil, something that feeds the Big Ag “devil” (to use the Freakonomics blog’s terminology), instead rather promote and endorse consumerism of another kind: Fair Trade consumerism.

That’s how you get to the point of mainline denominations pushing Fair Trade commodities (like coffee) in the church narthex and small groups, like moneychangers in the temple courtyard.

The Freakonomics post is lengthy and worthy of attention. But for a more comprehensive discussion of Fair Trade, be sure to check out the new monograph in the Studies in Christian Social Ethics and Economics series, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

In this book, Henderson State University economics professor Victor Claar examines the case of coffee in particular, and relates that in his

past place of worship, dedicated parishioners freely gave of their time and talents throughout the year to serve the retailing, advertising, and distribution efforts of Equal Exchange. Those parishioners who had taken on the ministry of fair trade coffee advertised frequently in the weekly bulletin and monthly newsletter—at no charge, of course. They also operated a coffee cart that was open for business between and after Sunday services, and they took great care to stock up on extra-special goodies in anticipation of gift-giving occasions such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day. They carefully maintained their inventory on hand, placing
orders with Equal Exchange when stocks were getting low. Of course, Equal Exchange was the only coffee served during coffee hour, where an Equal Exchange sign was prominently displayed to remind everyone that ours was a congregation that cared about the poor.

Claar concludes presciently: “In any other setting but a church, the message would be clear: If you enjoyed today’s free sample, be sure to pick some up on your way out to savor at home all week long.”

Order your copy of Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution today.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Thursday, May 27, 2010

This week’s commentary is from Victor V. Claar, an economist at Henderson State University and the author of a new Acton Institute monograph, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution. Follow his economics blog here.

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Poverty, Capital and Economic Freedom

By Victor V. Claar

When poor countries grow rich, it rarely has anything at all to do with how many mouths they have to feed or the abundance of natural resources. Instead, across the globe, poor countries of all sizes, climates, and endowments begin to grow rich as two key factors increase.

First, countries grow rich as their human capital improves. Human capital is the term economists use to describe the value that a country’s people possess through their accumulated experience and education. For example, there is little doubt that India’s recent growth explosion is due in large part to the education—including the knowledge of the English language—of its people.

Second, countries grow rich as they invest in and accumulate physical capital: the machines, tools, infrastructure, and other equipment that make the product of each hour of physical labor more valuable. That which both human capital and physical capital share is that they both transform the result of an hour of a person’s hard work into something of even greater value. As the value of an hour of labor rises, employers gladly pay higher hourly rates, knowing that their bottom lines will be the better for it.

If we want to be effective agents in aiding the poor, we should focus our efforts in directions leading to the enhanced value of an hour of labor. That is, we should help poor countries wisely grow their stocks of human and physical capital, all the while bearing in mind that markets and their prices send the best available signals regarding where our efforts can have the greatest impact. The newfound success of innovative micro lending efforts such as Kiva can help show us ways to effectively invest in the accumulation of physical capital by the global poor. Compassion International is a marvelous organization that works to further the education—the human capital—of poor children worldwide, with a financial accountability record above reproach. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, November 6, 2009

Cardus’ Robert Joustra rightly pillories “fair trade” along with the logic of foreign aid in a challenging article, “Fair Trade and Dead Aid: ‘My Voice Can’t Compete with an Electric Guitar.’”

Joustra’s point of departure is sound: “The aid model is not working, and no large-scale cash infusion or debt forgiveness scheme is going to make it suddenly start working. The fair trade brand is too small-scale and ultimately regressive.”

Unfortunately, though, Joustra’s well-placed critique of the fair trade movement underestimates the scope of the movement’s vision. With regard to coffee, for instance, Global Exchange has called for “a total transformation of the coffee industry, so that all coffee sold in this country should be Fair Trade Certified.”

The logic of fair trade in fact requires such wholescale paradigm shifts. But Joustra critiques the movement in part because it does not, on his view, represent the needed “long-term substantive critiques of the global social and political architecture.”

Joustra conclude that “as long as our consciences are salved by feel-good coffee branding and knee-jerk check writing campaigns, we won’t take the hard look we need at the architecture of global capitalism and bring about the social innovation that is necessary for genuine architectonic reformation.”

The problem with fair trade is not that it is not a comprehensive alternative to so-called global capitalism. It is that undermines the proper functioning of the market by artificially manipulating the price mechanism, resulting in all kinds of negative consequences, some of which Joustra notes, promoting “unprofitable work, and subsidizing unprofitable and undiversified economies.”

The critical questions that remain for Joustra and others are these: Does the proposed architectonic alternative to the current system properly value the role of markets or not? Do the corporatist and governmental abuses of “global capitalism” (e.g. subsidies, price fixing, and so on) need to be addressed, or are the philosophies of fair trade and aid not sufficiently communitarian? Is the basic problem free trade and liberal economic globalization itself or the distortions thereof?

Update: Robert Joustra cogently addresses my questions. His answers, in part:

First, I believe capitalism, particularly coupled with the rule of law in a culture of virtue and long-term’ism, is a sound economic system. But our capitalism has degraded to an obsession with utilitarian short-term materialism. Some are apt to blame the system, but consumerism is nothing new – the scale which modernity enables us to practice it on is. That can entice us to be overly critical of the system which facilitates it, but I remain convinced that the deep “sites” of resistance to global consumerism are not our politics or our institutions, but our homes, churches and grocery stores. Politics, as they say, is downstream of culture and our culture is saturated with short-term materialism.

I find very little with which to quibble in these answers. Read the whole thing.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Last week presidential candidate John McCain distanced himself from economic adviser Phil Gramm, after Gramm’s comments that America had become a “nation of whiners” and that the current concerns over a lagging economy amounted to a “mental recession” rather than any real phenomena.

The press and political reaction was swift and quizzical. What could Phil Gramm possibly mean? Why would an adviser to a presidential candidate publicly broadside the American electorate? As one editorial page wondered, “we can’t fathom the target of his ‘nation of whiners’ zinger.”

Sen. Obama himself seemed a bit (mockingly) incredulous. “Then he deemed the United States, and I quote, ‘A nation of whiners.’ Whoa,” Mr. Obama said. “A nation of whiners?” After his remarks were published, Gramm would later clarify that he was talking about “American leaders who whine instead of lead.”

But Obama’s reading of Gramm’s original remarks seem to be the most natural. “It isn’t whining to ask government to step in and give families some relief,” said Obama.

Well, maybe it is whining, but that’s precisely the sort of family-friendly rhetoric that makes Gramm’s remarks seem unduly harsh by comparison. But does it matter if there is truth to the substance of Gramm’s assertions? A day after Gramm’s statements appeared in the Washington Times, the Washington Post published an article highlighting the findings of a study that characterized the baby boomers as a generation of…”whiners.”

The study by the Pew Research Center found that

More than older or younger generations, boomers — born from 1946 to 1964 — worry that their income won’t keep up with rising costs of living. They say it’s harder to get ahead today than it was 10 years ago. They are more likely to say that their standard of living is lower than their folks’ but that things don’t look too good for their kids either (67 percent of younger generations, meanwhile, feel they have it better than their parents).

This despite the fact that boomers, dubbed here the “gloomiest” generation, have had it objectively better for a longer period of time than any other generation before or since. Anecdotally I had a “boomer” relative tell me the other day that the movie Cinderella Man resonated with her because it happened during a time of economic duress, the Great Depression, that so closely resembles the problems of today. Talk about a lack of correspondence between perception and historical reality!

The real problem with Gramm’s remarks was that they displayed a lack of connection to the perceptions of many Americans, even if his comments corresponded better with reality than many popular perceptions. Part of what makes a successful politician is the ability to understand and sympathize with his or her constituency, beyond the clarity of vision simply to see what the objective truth is. Gramm’s comments were more than just “bootstraps” rhetoric. Perhaps they were meant to be prophetic, in a way that gives people a kick in the rear and forces them to readjust their frame of reference.

And, again, the substance of the remarks didn’t differ much from what the “straight talking” McCain campaign has been saying all along. Last April McCain marched into Ohio, a part of the country hardest hit by globalization of industry, and said, “a person learns along the way that if you hold on — if you don’t quit no matter what the odds — sometimes life will surprise you. Sometimes you get a second chance, and opportunity turns back your way. And when it does, we are stronger and readier because of all that we had to overcome.” This sort of approach takes seriously the realities of both global trade and the plight of displaced workers.

So McCain’s dismissal of Gramm should be understood as having as more to do with rejecting the tone and style of Gramm’s message than the substance. McCain may have learned something from the resonance of Mike Huckabee’s message to blue collar evangelicals that trade needs to be “free and fair.” But for many economic conservatives, reactions to that message were as negative as reactions were to Gramm’s message. Free and fair? Free is fair, right? Maybe it is, but it doesn’t always seem to be so. And simply repeating “free is fair” isn’t going to work rhetorically.

The ideological inability of many economic conservatives to frame their message in a way that resonates with mainstream Americans is what is reflected in Phil Gramm’s comments and the corresponding rejection and derision of Mike Huckabee by many in the GOP (the positive reception of Gramm’s remarks among many economic conservatives underscores this). In politics, communicating the truth effectively is just as important as perceiving it. McCain might be on a steeper learning curve on that score than many of his fellow Republicans.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Council on Foreign Relations is hosting an online debate (in blog form!): “Policy for the Next President: Fair Trade or Free Trade” (HT).

From the introduction: “Jonathan Jacoby, associate director of international economic policy at the Center for American Progress and Robert Lane Greene, an international correspondent for the Economist, debate the shape of trade policy for the next U.S. administration and whether new trade deals should come with strings attached.”

The first two entries by each party are posted.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, October 4, 2007

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?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 8, 2007

A NYT editorial informs us today that retail prices for coffee products are rising (HT: Icarus Fallen). We are assured, however, that the price rise has been “relatively modest” and that an important factor is “changes in supply and demand in a global economy.”

No kidding.

The bad news in the editorial, at least for the fair trade crowd, is that these same forces of suppy and demand are raising the price for the commodity itself.

According to the International Coffee Organization, the composite price of coffee rose over 36 percent from the beginning of 2005 to the end of 2006. The organization predicts a down year for the Brazilian coffee crop, which could lead to a supply shortfall and even higher prices this year. While world demand has grown at annual rates of 1.5 to 1.8 percent over the last five years, it has been rising at a much faster clip of roughly 15 percent for smaller players like Russia and China. As more people enter the global middle class, the demand for coffee rises, putting upward pressure on the price.

I have argued previously that the very low price of coffee internationally was a pointer to the fact that we had a global glut in the bean supply.

That trend seems to be reversing and the rising commodity price for coffee is thus undermining the long-term viability, relevance, and credibility of fair trade coffee.

For an opposing perspective, check out Black Gold, a new movie on the fair trade coffee movement, which I have not yet seen (HT: The Advocate).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Unlike the flooded market for conventional coffee products, the specialty coffee market enjoys increasing demand along with limited supply. This means that the potential exists for developing countries to increase the quality and quantity of their coffee production to meet the demand.

Rwanda is a case in point, and shows how market pressures help to effectively and efficiently signal which and in what quantity such commodities should be produced. As Laura Fraser writes in The New York Times, “From the late 1960’s until the genocide, most of Rwanda’s coffee was sold to Rwandex, a virtual monopoly controlled by the postcolonial government, for whatever price the company would offer, so farmers had no incentive to pick out the bad cherries.”

The government monopoly stifled any incentives to innovate and improve quality, since there was no potential for increased profits. More recently, however, under the administration of President Paul Kagame, the coffee industry has been liberalized and Rwandan growers are now enjoying the increased ability to compete freely with other specialty growers around the globe.

Over the last decade, “Worldwide, overproduction of high-yielding varieties caused conventional coffee prices to bottom out, but specialty coffee prices remained relatively strong. President Kagame liberalized coffee trade, sold the government’s interest in Rwandex and began working with A.I.D. to develop specialty coffee.”

According to the International Coffee Organization, Rwanda’s production of coffee has remained relatively steady between the years 2000-2005. But with the increased competitive incentives and profit motivations, the quality of Rwandan coffee has blossomed.

Writes Fraser, “Partly because of abundant labor, which allows farmers to pick through and hand-sort cherries, the coffee that goes to market is exceptionally clean, or free of imperfect beans.”

“Geoff Watts, who oversees coffee buying for Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea Inc., a premium roaster based in Chicago, said, ‘Rwanda’s gone from zero to sixty, from a complete unknown in the specialty coffee industry to becoming the source of some of the cleanest coffees in East Africa.’”

“Five years ago, all Rwandan coffee sold at the C-grade, or lowest-quality, price. Now, demand for fully washed Rwandan coffee (about 7 percent of the crop) far exceeds supply.”

The liberalization and opening the Rwandan market to freely compete has allowed the specialty coffee industry to thrive, without artificial incentives of “fair trade.” The incentives of the market are helping reward an area that has natural resources well-fit for the production of quality coffee. Coffee exports now account for about thirty percent of Rwanda’s exports, or about $35 million.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 20, 2006

I was intereviewed for this article in yesterday’s New York Times, but I apparently didn’t make the cut. Nevertheless, in “Fair Prices for Farmers: Simple Idea, Complex Reality,” Jennifer Alsever does an excellent job bringing to light some of the dangers that are inherent with external and artificial adjustments to the price mechanism.

In the case of the fair trade food movement, the price floor is set artificially at a certain amount, determined to meet or surpass the subsistence needs of the local farmer. For coffee, this is currently set at $1.26 per pound by the fair trade community.

Alsever writes, “Despite good intentions, most consumers who shop according to their social convictions don’t know how much of their money makes it to the people they hope to help. Critics say too many fair trade dollars wind up in the pockets of retailers and middlemen, including nonprofit organizations.”

The problem is that the fair-trade certification organizations themselves, and also the retailers, can add several layers of increase into the price of a fair trade commodity. We might say that the fair trade consumer, who is presumably already willing to pay more than the market price, has a greater level of acceptable price elasticity.

TransFair USA, the certifying body in the US, “generated $1.89 million in licensing fees from companies that used the logo. It also spent $1.7 million on salaries, travel, conferences and publications for the 40-employee organization.”

“Farmers often receive very little,” said Lawrence Solomon, managing director of the Energy Probe Research Foundation, a Canadian firm that analyzes trade and consumer issues. “Often fair trade is sold at a premium, but the entire premium goes to the middlemen.”

Of course, these are the self-professed middlemen who cut out the layers of middlemen under a market based, free trade system. Those were the “bad” middlemen, while TransFair apparently represents the “good” sort of middleman.

One other aspect of this tinkering with the price mechanism is that the fair trade movement does nothing to recognize the reality reflected by purchasing power parity (PPP). So, writes Alsever, “a price that is fair in one country may not be in another. In Brazil, ‘$1.26 per pound for coffee is a fortune,’ said Kevin Knox, a coffee consultant in Boulder, Colo. ‘In the forest in the mountains of Mexico, the money barely is enough to justify doing it. Their yields are small, and the costs of production are higher.’”

These are just a few of the problems that arise when people try to artificially manage the price mechanism. When it is allowed to do its job, the market price of something provides a lot of good information. It can tell us, for example, that the supply of coffee far outstrips the demand, and so some coffee growers should think about getting into another product or industry. It would be in their best interests to do so, and the best interests of all of us, so that the world doesn’t end up with too much coffee and too little of something else.

The economic ignorance behind the fair trade movement leads me to believe that it really is just a sort of passing fad, especially popular among naïve church groups, which will at some point be replaced by far more effective methods of alleviating poverty around the world, such as micro-enterprise development (for more on this, see groups like Five Talents, Opportunity International, and Kiva). It’s hard to see real staying power behind a movement that thinks the answer to the reality of poor coffee farmers is simply to subsidize the production of commodities of which we already have an oversupply.

For more on some of the emotional and psychological reasons people are willing to pay more for fair trade items, see “Absolution in Your Cup: The real meaning of Fair Trade coffee,” by Kerry Howley. The fair trade movement currently lack the ability to enforce their pricing schemes through the coercive power of the state, so they must rely on other tactics.