What’s Fair About Fair Trade?

The cocoa industry has been plagued by issues of forced labor since its inception, and while awareness surrounding these issues have begun to come to light, the seriousness and effectiveness of action is often undercut by marketing campaigns that make vague promises of fair trade and improved living conditions. The advertisement above, for example, produced by Fair Trade Certified, suggests that buying Fair Trade Certified labeled products contributes to the building of infrastructure, community, and better agricultural standards in certain products’s countries of origins. When consumers buy coffee, chocolate, or sugar with this label, there is the implication that guilt associated with these commodities can be assuaged. However, this implication holds little or no merit, and it is unclear how a daily cup of coffee, gift of chocolate, or spoonful of raw cane sugar is exactly contributing to the betterment of lives abroad. What percentage of the surcharge for these products is going directly to farmers? How are these funds allocated and distributed? What are the standards for fair trade and can these standards be quantified? Are they being enforced? Advertisements like this leave many questions unanswered in their vague claims. The real aim of this marketing strategy is arguably the commodification of poverty and selling the experience of helping those in need. The advertisement ends with a slogan stating, “Every purchase matters. Look for the label. Buy Fair Trade. Do more good.” The fair trade movement would benefit greatly from an approach that moves away from the cultivation of a savior complex through the purchase of goods and, instead, focus on transparent communication of how surcharges are calculated and used. The “feel good” approach engenders false consumer empowerment and perpetuates the mystification of how products are produced and where consumer money is being allocated.

Transparency has been a buzzword in consumer goods and marketing in recent years and can also be problematic at times, especially as companies navigate their markets and legality of labeling and disclosure. Kevin Goldberg, Nestlé Nutrition’s general counsel, in an interview, stated that the new challenge “will be to effectively demonstrate how committed we are to all of those concerns. The issues will remain the same, but the bars for all of them will definitely be raised even higher than they are today” [1]. Demonstration of commitment has thus far been awareness focused and vague in terms of resolution. Nestle’s Cocoa Plan, a major initiative aimed at improving the livelihood of cacao farmers, chronicles many of the underlying factors that contribute to child labor and provides a clearer picture of the company’s strategies to mitigate child labor practices through a series of statistics. While helpful in communicating the company’s larger goals, it is difficult to draw a connection between the consumer, the products they buy, and this transaction’s impact on affected communities.

Image by author

While not connected to the cocoa industry, Everlane, a clothing company, deals with similar issues tied to apparel, and has reacted with “radical transparency.” Their company slogan in ”Know your factories. Know your costs. Always ask why.” This attitude is manifested in infographics about their products that break down the raw costs of production and reveal profit margins. The numbers are quite simple and do not speak to the myriad of factors that contribute to forced labor, but they provide a straightforward explanation of where consumer dollars go. Taza Chocolate’s Direct Trade initiative similarly pushes for transparency, but at the scale of the company’s operation as opposed to the scale of the consumer. Capitalizing on the potentials of empowerment for the consumer through transparency can be very effective if information is also disclosed at the scale of every purchase. Companies and certification processes that have gotten by with lax standards would be further and rightly scrutinized by a more informed customer base. As Goldberg states, “The new empowered consumer environment has certainly helped our already high standards evolve to become even more stringent” [2]. The re-imagined advertisement above breaks down the cost of a single, well sourced, chocolate bar in the fashion of Everlane’s marketing strategy. These numbers, while still abstract, begin to illustrate the inner workings of the cocoa industry in more neutral terms. Emotional campaigns are detached from these graphics, allowing consumers to consider what is fair in terms of their dollars and where they go and demystifying the relationship between goods bought and the labor that made it possible. By maintaining transparency in pricing, it may lead to stabilization in the volatility of the market for primary goods [3] as the siphoning of profit margins by middlemen are brought to light.

[1] Silver, Jeff. “Nestle Prioritizes Transparency in Advertising.” Modern Counsel. Accessed April 08, 2016. http://modern-counsel.com/2016/kevin-goldberg/.

[2] ibid.

[3] Sylla, Ndongo Samba, and David Clement Leye. The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. 2014. 





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