Archive for December, 2006
In my last post I wrote about a recent article in the Economist, which cast doubts on the entire fair trade movement.
The economic arguments presented were familiar and predictable. “The market decides”.
I don’t think the market decides very well. And to make that argument puts the lives of millions of people into the hands of economic formulae.
Instead, I think the world would be better served by putting away the calculators and the spreadsheets, and being a little more human in its vision of ‘economics’.
Take a look at Café Conciencia.
This is a non-profit organization based in Guatemala. Its work involves supporting farmers who grow fair trade coffee. The organization raises funds and supports its cause by selling the coffee and running eco-tours.
This is fair trade in action.
Fair trade isn’t some irritating subset of mainstream economics, to be discussed in boardrooms and bars.
The fair trade coffee movement is something that happens, in real life…now and now and now. And it transforms the lives of thousands upon thousands of poor farmers, their families and their communities.
You want to argue against that?
In a recent article in The Economist the author does a fair job of casting doubt on the benefits of fair trade, organic produce and buying local.
As always with The Economist, the article is well written and researched. The figures are there to support the author’s arguments, as are quotes from reputable experts.
In the concluding paragraph, the author writes:
“Food is central to the debates on the environment, development, trade and globalization — but the potential for food choices to change the world should not be overestimated.”
That’s a reasonable conclusion, based on the figures in the article.
However, I came away feeling like I had read a particular good high school essay on the topic of, “Find a popular movement and debunk it using statistics and quotations from experts.”
It’s easy to find figures and experts to debunk just about any topic you can imagine. Essentially, it’s a cheap trick, journalistic legerdemain.
When using “food miles” data to undermine the benefits of buying local, there are a few things that remain unsaid in this article.
There is no mention of the human benefits of reaching across a wooden table in an outdoor market, with the wind in your hair, and no fluorescent lighting, and taking a bag of produce from the man or woman who actually grew it.
There is no mention of taking your children and explaining that the person behind the table actually grew all the food on sale, and got up at 4 o’clock that morning to pick the vegetables and drive them to the market.
There is no mention of the underlying social and human benefits of supporting small, local farmers in your own community.
And when it comes to fair trade, while heavy with the expected economic arguments, the article fails to talk about the coffee farmer who has had the opportunity to buy school books for his children for the first time.
In the West we are addicted to the rational and the measurable. It comforts us to use figures and experts to support our views.
But our compassion, our human spirit and our ability to see what is actually in front of our own eyes withers and dies.
You want to know what fair trade, organic growing and buying local are really about?
Take your child to a farm market and watch his or her eyes as he or she reaches out to take a bag of fresh vegetables from the person who actually grew them.
The headline for this post comes from the following quote, taken from an article in Business Week.
"What’s important is what it says about our brand," said Brad Stevens, Starbuck Corp.’s vice president of U.S. Marketing.
The Seattle-based coffee giant recently kicked off an effort to hand out 10,000 cards called "cheer passes" daily, asking recipients to perform one act of kindness for someone else and pass the card along. The drive is not tied to any cause and the cards are not redeemable for merchandise, but recipients can track their card’s progress online.
"It says that we at Starbucks are willing to use our resources to try and start this chain of good will," said Stevens.
The Cheerpass campaign isn’t about fair trade coffee. But Mr. Stevens’ comments are very revealing.
When he says, "What’s important is what it says about our brand,” he is showing us that the motivation behind the campaign is entirely self-serving. He’s trying to make Starbucks look good. (Note to Starbucks: The best and only way to ensure that you look good is to BE good.)
This self-serving approach to goodwill and social responsibility is also what separates companies which have a genuine commitment to fair trade coffee from those which don’t.
Ask vice presidents from Starbucks, Nestlé and other giant coffee marketers about their involvement in the fair trade coffee movement. I can imagine each and every one of them saying, “What’s important is what it says about our brand.”
Now take a look at companies like ThanksgivingCoffee.com, which have genuine commitments to the fair trade coffee movement, and to supporting small coffee farmers and their communities.
There’s a vast difference between promoting fair trade simply to make money, and supporting fair trade because you believe in it.