Social Construct of Fairtrade

While young mothers in California may receive the brunt of the stereotype, socially conscious consumers have been around in force for over 45 years. People use what they eat not only to physically fuel their bodies, but also to make a statement about themselves as a consumer and a member of the world society (Guthman, 2012; 496-498). This movement has led to the rise of Fairtrade, organic, and other similar certifications and groups. As such, they have engendered targeted advertising with the focus on how the product was made responsibly, rather than the actual product itself. Below, the first ad is an actual Fairtrade chocolate advertisement and the second is an attempt at satire to mock some of the the real-world implications of the movement. The juxtaposition of these two ads highlights the draw virtuous consumers see in movements like Fairtrade, while also serving to underscore the shortcomings of these programs.

The Fairtrade ad depicts an African woman smiling and holding some cocoa pods, presumably on her farm or a local farm where she works. It is captioned, “It tastes good to do good.” This ad addresses many of the arguments in favor of Fairtrade and targets consumers with a message of social and economic equality. Fairtrade was initially formed as a response to the economic inequalities and development challenges in the South (Sylla, 2014; 64). It promises to challenge workplace discrimination, gender inequality, and unsafe working environments while ensuring fair prices and community development (Fairtrade, 2016; website). According to the group, the small added price consumers pay goes to ensure better wages, fairness, and community for the cocoa farmers. This advert stems more from the political and social awareness realms than any reference to the taste or social status chocolate can afford. In this way, the ad targets consumers who place high priority on ethics and fairness.

This targeting of ethically-minded consumers is a clever marketing tool, but one that initially caused concern. In its early years, the creators of Fairtrade feared the potential consumer backlash of introducing politics into markets (Sylla, 2014; 72). They had little to worry about, however; for the persuasion technique was well received. In fact, the tool has been so successful that ethical consumers have become the cornerstone of the Fairtrade system (Sylla, 2014; 78). This type of customer is concerned with how food is made, not just taste or appearance (Guthman, 2012; 497). Thus, the tagline on the ad makes sense – to these important consumers the ethics of production influence the quality and taste of the product.

fair-trade-chocolate-lcc
Fairtrade claims on the benefits and purpose of its system.

It is important to note just how wildly successful this campaign for the virtuous consumer has been. There is incredibly high visibility for these products and a huge rise in recent years (to about 50%) in consumer awareness of these Fairtrade and similar products (Sylla, 2014; 91). Customers like the fact that their purchase seemingly goes to help people in need and promote equality. Unfortunately, the ad is misleading and the apparent benefits of Fairtrade are not as clear as they would have the consumer believe. So, while the modern consumer is likely educated about the benefits of this system, they sadly should be receiving the more accurate (yet tongue in cheek) second version.

Compare the original ad to the second. Unlike the original advert, the second contains a white hand holding processed chocolate (not an African woman holding pods) and the tagline refers the the reduced guilt Fairtrade affords the customer. Essentially, this second ad is about the effects on consumers, not the purported benefits for the farmers. In this way, it is also the more honest of the two. The marketing success of Fairtrade overshadows the fact that its actual benefits are quite marginal and insignificant; in fact, net gains are often offset by the very promotion of the movement (Syllas, 2014; 204). It is a sad form of irony that the promotion and advertisements that made the Fairtrade system so well recognized are also what is damaging it so thoroughly. These ads suggest that the chocolate is somehow better for you, while in reality Fairtrade are rarely actually better for the worker (Guthman, 2012; 498-499). This brings us to the crux of the problem with the advertisement – the biggest benefit Fairtrade gives is to consumers’ conscience, not the farmers, and the second ad reflects this truth.

Fair-Trade
Description of Fairtrade benefits and mapping/examples of financial transactions.

Examining the infographic above, we sadly find faults with its information. There are issues with the math, as Fairtrade gives an extra $200 premium at the point of sale to the middleman, not the farmers, and the farmers have to pay up to $10,000 for a Fairtrade certification. There is no direct link to quality, the system is inefficient, there has been a dilution of the label and standards, and there is little proof this system is any better at helping the farmer than the free market (Syllas, 2014; 115). As noted above, the biggest benefits are in the minds of the consumers, not the pockets of the farmers. Fairtrade is not as helpful as their ads make it seem. Yet, one must remember that it was never meant to be a stand alone solution. Fairtrade must work within the countries and other support systems in order to effect true change. Thus, it is easy for consumers to want to buy into the Fairtrade system and it is easy to critique it, but ultimately one must judge the system by what it actually does than what it would like to do.

Citations:

Sylla, Ndongo. 2014. The Fair Trade Scandal. chapters, 1-2.

Guthman, Julie. 2012[2003]. “Fast food/organic food: reflexive tastes and the making of ‘yuppie chow.’” pp. 496-509.

What We Do. (n.d.). Retrieved April 7, 2016, from http://www.fairtrade.net/about-fairtrade/what-we-do.html

 

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