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The uneasy conscience of fair trade fundamentalism

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In The Christian Century, Rev. David Mesenbring provides an accounting of his experiences with fair trade. Mesenbring, who was an early advocate and adopter of fair trade practices and policies, thinks there’s good reason to doubt the efficacy of the movement as currently stands.

I was an early adopter of fair trade. Prior exposure to rural poverty in Africa had sensitized me to the plight of farmers in the global economy. Searching for a fair trade logo on my purchases of coffee and chocolate made me feel generous—as though I had sacrificed a bit of my economic interest to improve the lives of poor farmers. Convincing an entire congregation to sell fair trade goods during its coffee hour multiplied that generous feeling.

That “generous feeling” is about as far as many religious fair trade advocates have gotten. But Mesenbring goes much further.
Once he got to know more beyond the vague intentions behind fair trade, he found reason for doubt:

I’d never considered how much fair trade status costs farmers, nor the logistical impossibility of inspecting every small farm. In fact, I’d never given any thought at all to how compliance gets monitored.

Mesenbring notes the complexities of global trade, and concludes:

Today, an ever-evolving international fair trade movement makes it hard to know what standards are being certified by which mark. Worse still, research suggests fair trade isn’t rescuing farmers in the Global South who are struggling to survive the rapacious forces of global markets. In fact, fair trade’s biggest winners might well be the consciences of its consumers, along with retailers and movement promoters.

Fair Trade

I recommend reading Mesenbring’s thorough and sympathetic account of the history and challenges of fair trade. The fair trade movement appears to a classic case of good intentions frustrated by a lack of sound economic understanding.

What to do once one has grappled with the difficulties fair trade has experienced is a related but distinct question. Mesenbring’s narrative could be read as a realization that global capitalism cannot really be reformed. Or it could be read as what happens when good intentions meet economic realities. Irving Kristol once said that a neoconservative was simply “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” I doubt Mesenbring would want to identify as a neoconservative (or a neoliberal for that matter), but his encounter with the economic realities of international trade and religious advocacy is worth considering.

He also makes use of a fine study by economist Victor V. Claar, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution, which is the best place to go for more about the realities of fair trade after Mesenbring’s story piques your interest. Claar’s expert treatment focuses on coffee, the commodity that Mesenbring says “has long been the movement’s flagship commodity and still accounts for half of all its sales.”

Read “What does a fair trade logo actually mean?” by David Mesenbring at The Christian Century and Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution from the Acton Book Shop.

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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.