Treading Water: “Fair Trade” Certifications

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The western world is in a state of crisis. Each year brings more data on declining soil fertility, loss of fresh water, dangerous swings in global temperature and much else. In light of these truths the conscientious consumer seeks to do good, to participate in saving the planet in the greatest altruistic experiment of them all; to buy green.

However, our ecological warrior is generally unwilling to do too much. They still commute to work, participate in productive white collar labor, fly on air planes, purchase needless consumer goods, and eat outrageously varied diets (you live in New York, why are you eating chia seeds?). The solution, as devised by intelligent capitalists and marketing professionals is to sell the message, not the service. Enter Theo’s chocolate, Seattle’s only USDA Organic, Fair Trade, Non-GMO, Certified Biodynamic (what?) candy store. While the GMO and Organic craze is an important topic, it’ll be saved for another day. I want to talk about a few of these nonsense ‘certifications’ and underline the ideological principals behind them.

The pitch is the same for every designation, it goes something like this

  1. The world is broken and needs to be fixed
  2. We will fix the world by
    1. Giving poor people more money
    2. Supporting ‘superior’ farming practices
    3. Fighting for workers’ rights
  3. Give us money (we’re a nonprofit, trust us) and we’ll do it for you!

A pleasant fiction.

Rainforest Alliance: The Frog Sticker

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Just look at how green this seal is, it has to be environmentally friendly!

The Rainforest alliance group promises to do the following

  • Conserve ecosystems
  • Protect biodiversity/waterways
  • Conserve forests
  • Reduce agrochemical use
  • Safeguard well-being of workers

Essentially, the Rainforest alliance professionals want to behave like a pseudo social democratic regulatory agency; spreading their knowledge and good will to hapless third world farmers under the yolk of  crony capitalistic oppression. So, how is this done? Great question.

Companies pay the Rainforest Alliance group to use their logo, this fee includes support for an adhoc inspection and auditing service which will visit the farm. Now these auditors write up a report after, testing the water supply, observing working conditions and looking at growing/harvesting methods. In addition they ‘advise’ the farmer/company in question on sustainable growing and harvesting practices. If it all meets spec (to be found, with some reasonable difficulty, here) they give corporate center the thumbs up.

Libertarians and anti-government fanatics around the globe must be very enthused at a free market alternative to some dystopian global fascist auditing service. The irony of a free market certification service which is primarily purchased by socialist/social democrat leftists is a real delight. Anyway, lo-and-behold that this free market auditing service suffers the same problems as traditional, government run auditing; a strong financial incentive for the Rainforest Alliance auditors to continue to let its companies pass inspection (they gotta pay the bills some how).

Environmental group WASH (Water and Sanitation Health, a non profit based in Washington State) sues Chiquita Bananas who, they claim, polluted the water supply in southern Guatamala. But Chiquita advertised that it was not going to be evil. Chiquita settled. As an aside, Chiquita also has had legal troubles with the US government for its cash payments to ‘terrorist’ groups in early 2000, which promised to not raze and burn their crop. While I’m sympathetic to their cause, apparently paying protection money to FARC isn’t included in the Rainforest Alliance’s check list.

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Pay no mind to those marxists armed with AK47s

Once that case was settled our friends at WASH then turned around and sued the Rainforest Alliance group for, you guessed it, false advertising. Why didn’t the Rainforest Alliance group catch the poisoned water and withhold it’s certification from the evil Chiquita Bananas?

The Rainforest Alliance group stood firm in its commitment to one of the largest banana producers in the world. While Chiquita settling doesn’t necessarily mean they polluted the water supply and killed a bunch of people, it is unsettling. Litigation is pending but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that a private certification service fell prey to the incentives of its business.

Demeter Certified: Pseudo Science for Biology Majors

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Apparently this nonsense is a thing

If you’re like me, you only heard of this certification while browsing the annals of companies desperately trying to prove that they are fixing the world. Like the 40 year old mom who wears every clothing accessory she can find to prove that she’s still ‘got it’.

Certified Biodynamic is a certification based on the work of Rudolf Steiner who took organic agriculture and added spiritual pseudo science. The jist is this, any farming endeavor must, as much as possible, be ‘self-sustaining.’ That is to mean that inputs into the system are minimized and outputs are recycled. This sounds some what reasonable on the surface until you read their web page.

While agriculture takes nature to a state that is one step removed from wilderness, the wisdom of the farmer that guides its course can reflect these ancient principles of sustainability.  The view of the farm organism extends beyond the fence line and includes the tangible and intangible forces that work through it.  Examples include the climate, inherent wildlife of the earth (above and below the ground), the light and warmth from the sun and the more distant astronomical influences.  Biodynamic agriculture attempts to harmonize all of these factors within a holistic, living farm system.  The food that results is very pure and true to its essence and provides deeply penetrating nutrition that is essential to an increasingly unhealthy human population.

Please stop. I don’t even know where to begin.

So some academics have reviewed the work of this company, analyzed the products created and the impact on the land and here is the result.

However, many of his statements [Rudolf Steiner] are not provable simply because scientifically clear hypotheses cannot be made as his descriptions were unclear and not stringent. Those predictions that can be tested scientifically have been found to be incorrect. It was concluded that Steiner’s instructions are occult and dogmatic and cannot contribute to the development of alternative or sustainable agriculture.

Fair Trade: Tricking the 1st World

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This one is the most prolific and obnoxious. First, it operates on the presumption that trade is inherently unfair and that you need this certification to justify your choice to buy products which are taken from foreign countries. Wake me up when my Japanese car gets a ‘fair trade’ certification for the workers who got hosed in the rust belt. Apparently we only care about ‘fair trade’ if the guy on the other end is brown.

Fair Trade works like this, companies pay the FairTrade organization for right to use the logo and fees for inspection. Fair Trade will then audit this company based on some criteria (less use of chemicals, working conditions, etc.). There is also a ‘price floor’ in place which can be higher than the world market price, but also can be lower. The theory being that in poor economic conditions the farmers still get paid. In addition there are additional ‘social premiums’ paid out to the company owners via the consumer (so yes, you willingly pay a fixed mark-up on every Fair Trade product). If there is an expected surplus (difference between sale price and ‘fair market value’), that surplus must be spent on ‘community projects.’

There are a two problems here, first, how can I the consumer be sure that farmers are actually the ones benefiting from my decision to pay a premium for worse goods? Secondly, is there any evidence that ‘community projects’ actually benefit, you know, the community of starving 3rd world laborers? The answer to both, is no.

Like most ‘green’ certifications I’m expected to take what the company says at face value and truly believe that their good intentions and snappy webpage is enough. Because hey, if I actually want to check what they are doing I’d have to travel to Africa. That’s a big problem, but thankfully some academics (always looking for ways to publish papers) have done the work for us.

Careful statistical analysis allowed us to separate out the possible effects of other factors, such as the scale of production. Still, the differences were in most cases, and especially for wages, statistically significant. Explaining why it should be that workers in areas dominated by Fairtrade organisations are so often worse off than workers in other areas is a complex and challenging task. Our full report explores some possible reasons.

It was also surprising to learn that many people do not benefit from the “community” projects supported with funds generated by the “social premium” consumers pay for Fairtrade products. Researchers at Soas, University of London, formerly know as the School of Oriental and African Studies, found that many of the poorest are unable to use these facilities. In one Fairtrade tea co-operative the modern toilets funded with the premium were exclusively for the use of senior co-op managers

Alternatives and Summary

I am all for people making pointless spending choices. I have no issue with a person who decides to spend $50,000 on a car, or a neighbor who blows $10,000 on a nice vacation. To each his own. What I do have a problem with is people who use their pointless spending decisions as an example of their supposed ethical virtue or moral superiority. Let’s be clear, your decision to exclusively use FairTrade, Rainforest Alliance, or Biodynamic Certified goods is an indicator of your ideological beliefs and, to be frank, naivete rather than your supposed ‘sacrifices’ to fix the planet.

Your choice to spend an extra $1 on coffee to build water wells in Africa is no more moral than someones decision to save that $1 and feed his/her family, buy cocaine, or take dancing lessons. The choice to participate in charity, engage in free market certification schemes, or hand out food at a local shelter are just that; neutral to potentially negative.

I agree, this planet is heading toward it’s own destruction. But the reality is that we probably have entered a point of no return. We are in an epic race toward escaping planet earth entirely or developing the technology to reverse the damage. Stasis brought about via ‘sustainable farming’ is not only politically infeasible (try convincing the starving masses in India that they don’t need an extra helping of rice this year because we decided to produce less), its logically ridiculous.

This movement is not bent on ‘saving the planet’ it is purely an ideological exercise used to dupe people who buy into the presuppositions of the movement but are incapable of critically analyzing it. So take your smug sense of superiority elsewhere and drink your ‘Fair Trade’ coffee silently for once.

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