May 2012

Coffee and chocolate: a good starting place

If you grabbed a handful of people off the street and asked them what they knew about fair trade, coffee and chocolate would feature prominently in their answers. This is a good starting place, says Evan Ellis.

BY Evan Ellis

I reckon if you grabbed a handful of people off the street and asked them what they knew about fair trade, coffee and chocolate would feature prominently in their answers. This is a good starting place (coffee and chocolate usually is), however the story of fair trade is a lot bigger than individual products.

It’s an ideal as well as a certification process; that trade (the process of buying, selling, or exchanging commodities) can and should be fair (free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice).

While awarding fair trade stickers to products that maintain high ethical and environmental standards is new, biblical literature is rich in injunctions to trade fairly. Take the perennial challenge of weighted scales (Lev 19:35-36, Deut 25:13, Prov 11:1, 16:11, 20:10, Hos 12:7, Mic 6:11).

Swindling an extra shekel or denarii with crooked scales was not only an affront to the wholesaler, but to God. “The Lord detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him” (Prov 20:23).

At first glance this seems as fair as it is irrelevant. After all, when’s the last time any of us have dusted off the old trick-scales on the way to market; tough bargaining at a garage sale maybe, but dodgy scales?

The problem is that in the global economy the scales are weighted.

International trade laws overwhelmingly favour the rich and powerful, whether they are nations, corporations or individuals. They are certainly not the result of collegial bureaucrats with an overwhelming desire to share the world’s resources and wealth evenly.

In Australia, by and large, we benefit from this set up. We benefit when we buy cheap consumer goods that save on cost by paying their workers a miserly wage. We benefit when we enter into regional trade agreements with weaker states (such as the proposed Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations or PACER) and are unfair in our terms. And we benefit when we use our wealth, channelled through our aid program, as a bargaining chip for favourable access to new markets.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

While nations (or individuals) can be pretty egregious in the name of national (or self) interest, the Latin root of the word ‘interest’ is derived from inter (between, among) and esse (to be, being). This hints that if our interest (or being) was tailored with a keen awareness and respect for the interest of our neighbours (who we are between, among) it would most likely be a tremendous force for good.

Fair Trade takes this idea and runs with it. It maintains that it is possible for communities and nations to live alongside and trade with each other; that it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. Cocoa farmers in West Africa or cotton producers in Peru have as much right to turn a buck as we do. With a little support and a curbing of a winner-takes-all approach that pervades business, this is possible.

The underlying caveat with Fair Trade though, is that profit can’t be the only aim. If it is, then logic dictates that paying just wages will only inflate the selling price. However, this is exactly the point Pope Benedict made explicit in his letter, Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate).

“Profit is useful if it serves as a means toward an end. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.” (Caritas in Veritate #21).

Or, for those more mathematically inclined: common good > profit = fair trade.

What Fair Trade is attempting is nothing less than a bold judo throw in the economic sphere, whereby trade, which is no stranger to profit by “improper means”, becomes a powerful tool for development and sustainability.

While the Fair Trade system may be imperfect and not without its critics, it remains an initiative to be explored, developed and widely celebrated.

Coffee and chocolate anyone?

Fair Trade Fortnight is held in Australia from May 5-20, 2012.

Evan Ellis

Evan Ellis is a freelance writer currently on contract in the public sector.

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