Let's Be Relevant
Earlier this week Relevant Magazine published a small article titled "Unconventional Ways to Fight Poverty". In her last point, the author suggests readers "rethink ethical buying habits”. At first glance I was thrilled to see this in an article because I believe that the ways in which we spend our money can have a profound effect globally, for good or for bad. Unfortunately my excitement quickly turned into a state of completely confused horror as I continued and realized that the author was suggesting that fair trade is a bad thing. In her brief article the author makes several bold statements suggesting that fair trade "doesn’t help third-world farmers and manufacturers as much as you might think" and even suggests that research shows fair trade hurts people. I simply did not understand how someone could think it was okay to dismantle an entire movement in 300 words from a platform as large and well respected as Relevant. It just seemed so irresponsible. Especially considering that there is research which would point to the exact opposite. For example, in the first half of 2013, when the coffee market dropped to historic lows, Fair Trade producers earned an average of $0.84-$0.89 per pound above the New York market price, helping them keep food on the table and their businesses afloat. Additionally, A 2013 study in Uganda by Gottingen University found that “Fairtrade certification increases household living standards by 30% and significantly reduces the prevalence and depth of poverty.” So we have three choices here. 1. The Fair Trade people are lying. 2. Relevant and the author are lying. 3. Maybe, just maybe, this is far too complex of an issue to fully defend or fully destroy and would better be discussed through continued debate and thoughtful conversation.
I am not an expert in fair trade and I wanted to learn more and share more. I reached out to other people involved in the fair trade movement to hear their thoughts on the article. Here are their responses.
“We’re proud of all that has been accomplished in Fair Trade, but also know that there is much more work to be done. Today the vast majority of products we consume are not part of any sustainable supply chain. We also know that there are over 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day—65% working in agriculture—and Fair Trade reaches only a small fraction. But that doesn’t mean we should give up! Fair Trade is a continuous journey—it is constantly evolving and improving to ensure that the benefits of Fair Trade reach farther and go deeper.”-Fair Trade USA
“Elise Amyx's articles starts out well enough, with her suggestion that we think about poverty as a lack of hope, and social isolation. And her section about treating the poor with dignity is an excellent one. But after that, her article slides into nothing but toxic cynicism couched in Christian empathy...Instead of challenging us to live better, she only tells us what we want to hear: that there's no point in seeking out products that put the health, safety and livelihood of workers first. Just do what you want!...Slavish devotion to free trade without restriction or care has led to such tragedies as the collapse of Rana Plaza, the slew of farmer suicides in India related to their adoption of new "better" farming habits as promoted by western corporations, and the poisoning and theft of land from indigenous peoples. It's true that our well-meaning efforts can fall awry (mission trips comes to mind first, actually), but that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and snatch up shirts from Forever21 and chocolate harvested by children in Africa. It means we keep trying and learning. Shame on you, Amyx. You just single handedly promoted apathy among thousands of readers.” -Alden Wicker of EcoCult
“We were most disappointed to see Relevant Magazine publish an article on Unconventional Ways to Fight Poverty that dealt with Fair Trade in rather a dismissive and perfunctory way. In our opinion, it was regrettable to see an article dismiss all the good that Fair Trade has achieved and fought for over many decades by basically saying ‘buy what you want anyway’. We were told ‘The next time you buy coffee or tea, you can skip the fair trade and still have confidence you are helping a farmer in need.’ Just ‘buy the coffee you like best’. Really? This feels neither informed, responsible nor helpful....True, Fair Trade has not solved world poverty, nor achieved nirvana, but it is not right to dismiss it so easily and generally in the space of a short paragraph with no background or justification for the claims made...When articles like this one rashly encourage readers to forego buying Fairtrade items, this has real and direct consequences for people’s lives and livelihoods. Consumers should not be made to lose faith in a system which can’t possibly hope to do everything, but which has done so much to transform lives in poor communities across the world. Continuous learning and improvement has long been the policy for Fairtrade and it will continue to try to amend and improve in response to local situations and research findings. At Trade as One we continue to be very proud of all of our Fairtrade producers and of the positive changes they bring to local farming communities, and of the transparency in the supply chain, and the long term commitment to these farmers and places. The Fairtrade certification helps to provide much needed transparency, and to ensure fair wages and treatment of workers, and investment in their communities...What we buy and who we buy it from DOES make a difference- we should be encouraging consumers to ask questions and be responsible in their purchasing habits, not to default to a lazy and cynical unquestioning apathy. As consumers we can help encourage companies and organizations to treat their farmers and workers like we would expect to be treated in our places of employment- with dignity, respect, fairness and a living wage. If big companies can get away without respecting the basic needs of their employees and farmers then they will, their costs will be kept down, and we will have cheaper cups of coffee- whilst the producers will remain disadvantaged by poverty and all of its challenges. As consumers, we have great power to drive change by showing companies that we chose to spend our money where our values are reflected, and we realize that our actions here make a difference to farmers there." -Trade As One
As a passionate supporter of conscious consumerism and a thoughtful lifestyle blogger it pains me to see irresponsible journalism directing away the very types of consumers who might most care about fair trade. However what has caused me to act on this is that the article has been shared thousands of times on social media, potentially spreading this misinformation to tens of thousands of readers. I’m sure that the editing process is different for the print magazine and that something as seemingly thoughtless as this article wouldn’t have made it to print. But you know what? I’ve never had a friend bring me a magazine article to read. Never. Yet daily I’m sent articles on facebook and email. These small articles might seem like good space fillers to gather online views but I think they are actually way more important than that because of how they’re shared. There are many problems with the article but I am most worried about how it was read, not what was said. Those of us who dive deep into this kind of stuff know that there are differences between Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Sustainably Sourced, Ethically Sourced etc. My assumption is that Ms. Amyx is directly referring to the Fair Trade Certification process in her article. The problem I think is that most readers of the article won’t care about these distinctions. If this is correct, then this article did some damage. Now instead of talking about what Fair Trade certification is and how we can continue to make it better, thoughtful consumerism was simply dismissed. I don’t believe this was the intent at all but I do think it's realistic to assume that is what some readers took away from this article. In one of her comments to the criticism to the article that author states that she understands her views are “against the grain”…I’m sorry but that is just not true. The view of “be a cynic, put down the process and do what you want” couldn’t be more mainstream. I don’t think the author is solely responsible here, I think Relevant is responsible for trying to shove too much into an article and maybe trying so hard to be devil's advocate that they totally missed an opportunity. I don’t know. What I do know is this. It’s easy to be a critic but if we are going to be critical let’s criticize the businesses that don't care and support and encourage the ones that do to better their practices. Let’s hold companies accountable. LET’S HOLD OURSELVES ACCOUNTABLE. The way we spend our money matters and in our gut we all know that. We can do better.