Fairtrade concerns

I have posted before about my concerns about Fairtrade — the organisation promoting higher prices to growers — despite being otherwise happy with their intentions. (See here and here). This week, The Economist does a review and, in fact, supports to contentions I made in my earlier posts. They asked: who would object to higher prices paid to growers?

Economists, for a start. The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade premium—in effect, a subsidy—both prevents this signal from getting through and, by raising the average price paid for coffee, encourages more producers to enter the market. This then drives down the price of non-Fairtrade coffee even further, making non-Fairtrade farmers poorer. Fairtrade does not address the basic problem, argues Tim Harford, author of “The Undercover Economist” (2005), which is that too much coffee is being produced in the first place. Instead, it could even encourage more production.

Mr Bretman of FLO International disagrees. In practice, he says, farmers cannot afford to diversify out of coffee when the price falls. Fairtrade producers can use the premiums they receive to make the necessary investments to diversify into other crops. But surely the price guarantee actually reduces the incentive to diversify?

Another objection to Fairtrade is that certification is predicated on political assumptions about the best way to organise labour. In particular, for some commodities (including coffee) certification is available only to co-operatives of small producers, who are deemed to be most likely to give workers a fair deal when deciding how to spend the Fairtrade premium. Coffee plantations or large family firms cannot be certified. Mr Bretman says the rules vary from commodity to commodity, but are intended to ensure that the Fairtrade system helps those most in need. Yet limiting certification to co-ops means “missing out on helping the vast majority of farm workers, who work on plantations,” says Mr Wille of the Rainforest Alliance, which certifies producers of all kinds.

Fairtrade is one of those ideas that sounds good at a first pass but is worrisome when you work out all of the effects. Put simply, if you pay more for some part of the crop, either (a) you encourage entry and over-production; or (b) you end up favouring some growers over others. There is no other way for things to add up.