There is quantitative and qualitative data that suggests social enterprise and fair trade models can deliver significant benefits to individual workers, particularly to those who own their own enterprises or land. But, while fair trade business models may have the capacity to materially improve the lives of individuals, they are not—nor do they pretend to be—a path to a systemic transformation of globalized trade.
There is a lot of economic and social history between my dad importing his first container of coffee and my standing in Pottery Barn holding apparently fair trade sheets. My dad came of age in the ‘90s, during a series of neoliberal triumphs, as policies of tax reduction, deregulation, privatization, and austerity spread across the globe. At the time, there was consensus even among liberals and progressives that market strategies could be leveraged to eradicate extreme poverty and mitigate global inequality.
Like many immigrants, my dad’s story is a confluence of sometimes hard-won, other times serendipitous, circumstances that gave him the opportunity to travel from his home country, Colombia, to study economics in Minnesota. He went to work as a financial analyst at a large engineering firm, but after nearly half a decade he became disillusioned with corporate America and set out on his own venture inspired by the trade ethics of a charming handicrafts market called Ten Thousand Villages. Unfortunately, the average consumer only has so much need for statement earrings, scarves, and heart-shaped rocks carved with the word “peace,” all of which Ten Thousand Villages is known for. My dad saw a potential solution to their problem: consumables. And as a Colombian, coffee was his obvious (if somewhat cliche) answer.
After a lean few years, my dad built a profitable ethical food wholesaler called Level Ground Trading. By the time I was a teenager, Level Ground coffee was sold in grocery stores across the United States and Canada, including a five pound package developed especially for Costco.
Throughout its history, the majority of actors in the fair trade movement—with some notable exceptions—have remained studiously apolitical. Instead of calling for regulation and worker protections when sweatshop scandals break, many of these brands pitch themselves as a safe alternative. This has gotten more complicated as fair trade products have become increasingly mainstream: Walmart, Target, and yes, Williams-Sonoma, the company that owns Pottery Barn, have all carried fair trade certified products for years. My dad thinks that this is unquestionably a good thing. I’m not so sure.
“The problem,” says Canada Research Chair in International Development Studies, Dr. Gavin Fridell, “is that corporations can’t be ethical.” For two decades, Dr. Fridell has criticized the fair trade movement from the Left, arguing that it is structurally limited because it relies on corporations and consumers to volunteer to pay a price that includes “fair” wages, safe working conditions, environmental responsibility, among other things, as opposed to requiring them to.
At the beginning of the pandemic, when consumers in North America and Europe suddenly stopped buying jeans and started buying loungewear, companies supposedly committed to “corporate responsibility” such as Levi Strauss and American Eagle, canceled several orders, totalling a reported 1.5 billion dollars, leaving factories in Bangladesh to lay off thousands of low wage workers with little social safety net. Due to pressure from consumers on social media, some of these brands did eventually commit to paying out in-progress contracts, which the Worker Rights Consortium has been tracking, but because brands typically pay suppliers once a shipment is delivered, this did little to mitigate the immediate devastation for workers.
Even beloved fair trade brands fall short under the existing model. Self-described “radical transparency” pioneer, Everlane, laid off four customer service employees who had, just four days before, filed paperwork to get their union recognized. Before this, Everlane’s commitment to ethical sourcing and sustainable materials was nearly beyond reproach. Their clothes were accessible—more affordable than other ethical-ish options, yet worn by celebrities like Meghan Markle. According to reporting done by Jacobin, Everlane did eventually capitulate to some of the most important union demands, including a $19/hour minimum wage for customer service employees, paid time off, and other benefits. Despite the eventual resolution, the failed unionization effort suggests Everlane’s progressive instincts have hard limits.
Dr. Fridell thinks we should meet these hard limits with policy. He proposes international regulatory mechanisms, a means of increasing equity in the system of global trade. This has worked in the past with coffee. In 1963, coffee-producing nations and coffee-buying nations entered into the International Coffee Agreement, which implemented a quota system to restrict the supply of coffee brought to market in an attempt to stabilize, and hopefully raise, the price.
Without regulatory mechanisms to ensure higher prices, fair trade becomes an experiment in ever-shrinking margins in order to compete. For example, Vetta Capsule, a company that markets itself as committed to transparency, sustainable fabrics, and responsible factories, broke down the cost of its $170 “oversized sweater” on its Instagram account. Together, the labor, yarn, shipping, trim, and transport cost $92.53, leaving a narrow $75.47 margin for stateside costs like marketing, distribution, and web hosting. To me, this tiny margin seems like a surefire way of exploiting your workers in other parts of the supply chain (like the “radically transparent” Everlane is alleged to have done) or getting clobbered by less-scrupulous multinational corporations.
Doug Dirks, who worked at Ten Thousand Villages for nearly 30 years, including a brief stint as CEO, has a different perspective. He told me a story about a time when The Body Shop reached out seeking help sourcing handmade hemp exfoliating mitts. Dirks knew of a cooperative of women in Bangladesh who worked with hemp, primarily making rope and twine. He connected them and The Body Shop placed an order for about 1,000 hemp bath mitts. When the cooperative delivered the shipment, The Body Shop rejected it, saying that the macrame was of poor quality. Ten Thousand Villages stepped up to absorb the shipment and sell it in their stores at a near loss and committed to working with the artisans to develop their product. When The Body Shop reordered, the product met its standards. Today, if you buy a hemp product from The Body Shop it comes from that same cooperative.
Dirks is proud of that story and has a right to be, but I’m left with questions. Namely, wouldn’t a multinational corporation—especially one that seems to earnestly want to improve its trade practices—be in a better position than even Ten Thousand Villages to accept such a loss?
While huge corporations can more easily absorb the associated costs of a one-off line of slightly more expensive fair trade products, companies like Vetta, Everlane, even Ten Thousand Villages itself, and smaller retailers like my dad’s business, are entirely dependent on their customers choosing to pay more for their product.
Fair Trade USA has acknowledged this critique in recent years, especially as the debate about what constitutes a living wage has heated up closer to home. In a recent white paper, the Fair Trade Advocacy Office commissioned two economists to create a formula for determining a living wage for workers on fair trade certified farms in four different countries. Their findings were pretty straightforward: a living wage should allow workers to afford the basics, such as healthy food, decent housing, education for their kids, and healthcare. The hope is now that a formula for a minimum wage has been established, workers will be able to collectively bargain for higher wages and better benefits. Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International claim to be in the process of ensuring that these standards are met by the organizations they certify, though they acknowledge that existing regulatory frameworks are inadequate.
If Dr. Fridell has his way, one day we could see fair trade products in major national retailers like Pottery Barn and not have to wonder if it’s too good to be true. We could also have more and better legislation that ensures our clothes and bed sheets are made by fairly paid adults, in safe working conditions, with the protection of a union.
This is an ambitious vision, but a recent example shows that it can be achieved. In September 2020, smallholder farmers in India started protesting against neoliberal trade reforms that would supposedly “modernize” India’s economy but, in reality, would threaten farmers’ ability to collectively bargain for the highest possible price for their harvest. As the protests continued, Indian activists and farmers called on their Western partners, particularly self-described socially conscious wellness brands selling turmeric and other Indian traditional remedies, to express support and solidarity. Some did, such as Moon Juice, Golde and Rainbo, while others remained conspicuously silent. On November 3, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed the reform laws, delivering a victory to India’s longest non-violent protest. In light of this triumph, imagine the victories that could be ahead if fair trade advocates could align with activists to agitate for good governance, regulation, better working conditions, and environmental protections.