When does Fair Trade really make sense?

(what follows is an updated synthesis of some comments I made on an Italian mailing list back in 2007). I am publishing them because I feel certain questions still make sense today, and because I am really interested, much more today than back then, to exchange ideas and experiences about this)

Fair Trade, at least in forms like “buy these T-Shirts made in India with Organic Cotton, by a company that decided to invest in community and workers rights” leaves me a bit puzzled.

The Fair Trade products I’ve come across so far are almost always of that same kind: stuff that I do NOT need and/or I really don’t like, style-wise, regardless of its price and regardless of where, how or by whom they are produced. Ornaments or clothes very far from my taste and preferences (and I already have too many T-Shirts anyway), candies or other food that either is in the “the less you eat that, the better for your health” category, or is not essential, or (for me of course!) doesn’t really taste that good anyway, etcetera. Frankly, I struggle to see the meaning and need of this kind of Fair Trade (I do know that not all Fair Trade is like this: it is like this, however, the majority of cases I have personally encountered so far!().

It seems to me that in such purchases there is a bit too much charity and excess of welfarism, just in a different format. It seems to me that buying certain Fair Trade products would be like “I only take this stuff so that I can feel fair, or to humiliate you a little less when you have to beg for money to survive”. Buying certain products seems to me a bit like buying Girl Scout cookies. Or like those fund-raising cake sales at the Parish, those where mothers buy from each other’s kids the cakes that they (the mothers, not the kids) had baked the day before, just to give kids the illusion that they’re doing something to finance their own activities. Or buying lighters or T-Shirts from some beggar in the street, even if you already have too many of them. Sometimes certain purchases may be the right thing to do all the same, I agree, but is Fair Trade the right name? In Italy, there’s at least missionary Alex Zanotelli that expressed similar doubts before me. What about other countries?

Personally, I find reducing consumption and eliminating what’s superfluous in one’s life comes first and is much more important than supporting every kind of Fair Trade. My feeling is “Yes to Fair Trade!”, that is yes to buy stuff directly from their original producers abroad, bypassing multinationals and other intermediaries, even if Fair Trade products coming from the other side of the planet pollute (by transportation) just as much as products from multinationals. But this “Yes to Fair Trade” only comes from me when it’s about buying stuff that one REALLY (but REALLY) needs, and when it is stuff that it isn’t possible to produce or find locally, new or used, in any other way. At least in some fields, it’s possibile to do lot of Trade that is just as Fair as that but (think Farmer Markets) it’s much closer and satisfies actual, essential needs of the average family more than some exhotic ornament or food.

When I shared these doubts of mine for the first time somebody answered: “So what? What would you accomplish with all this “Purity”? Should we leave the farmers of the Global South alone in the hands of greedy multinationals? Should we renounce completely to stuff like cocoa, coffee, bananas, sugar and so on?"

Personally, certain doubts came to me out of simple pragmatism, not purity or any kind of “all or nothing” vision. If I can only afford to spend a few Euros each month to help people less lucky than I am, it is essential that I understand which actions, or categories of action, are more effective. Personally, I have the feeling that, in these times, developing countries need direct, focused help on quality education much more than buying their Fair Trade stuff (1). I have the feeling that help of that kind would score much higher than Fair Trade purchases in the “list of actions that are really needed and can make a difference”. I have the feeling that the farmers of the Global South would discover how to make a living of their fields anyway, even without external help, but that it would be much harder for them to build by themselves, without specialized assistance, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure that are adequate and sustainable. What do you think?

(1) sure, even a lot of “developed” countries would need the same assistance, but that’s another discussion