Unforeseen impacts of the fair trade movement

March 20, 2017, University of Delaware
Research by the University of Delaware’s Lindsay Naylor examines the fair trade movement and its impacts across the globe. Credit: University of Delaware

Fair trade certified coffee is the kind of phrase that sounds good on a Whole Foods shelf, the type of marketing that merges first world affluence with third world resource. For the average consumer, it implies fairness in labor and wealth, the idea that small producers profit directly from the products and goods they produce.

The reality is far more complex, says Lindsay Naylor, assistant professor of geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment whose paper, "Auditing the Subjects of Fair Trade: Coffee, Development, and Surveillance in Highland Chiapas," was published recently in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

In research that has taken her to the shade grown coffee plots of Mexico and the communities of indigenous Maya who work in them, she has discovered that this seemingly altruistic concept often has unforeseen impacts, and complex political origins.

In the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, for example, where fertile soils grow an estimated 60 percent of Mexico's total coffee output, the coffee business benefits the Mayan community, but in some ways, also has them trapped.

"Fair trade has assisted families, but it's also served as a security blanket with little mobility," she says. "Coffee producers are marching in place."

Labor prices have been raised only once since fair trade labels first originated in 1988, and most farmers make around $500-1,000 each year.

But the power of the crop also goes beyond profits and pay, becoming at times a political weapon.

As an example, Naylor points to the 1997 Massacre of Acteal, in which 45 men, women and children participating in a Catholic Mass for peace were slaughtered.

"Their pacifist response to violence was to create a coffee cooperative," she says of their Maya Vinic . "Truly rising from the ashes. That's what makes the fair movement so fascinating."

Naylor is one of the foremost scholars on the topic, having previously published, "Some are More Fair than Others: Fair Trade Certification, Development, and North-South Subjects," in the 2014 issue of Agriculture and Human Values. She was also quoted in a Yes Magazine article on "How to Become a Citizen Eater: A Trip Behind the Labels of Your Ethnic Cup of Coffee."

Explore further: Fair trade coffee - good for cafes and growers

More information: Lindsay Naylor. Auditing the subjects of fair trade: Coffee, development, and surveillance in highland Chiapas, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2017). DOI: 10.1177/0263775817694031

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3.3 / 5 (3) Mar 20, 2017
We as Americans love the term "Fair". It is politically correct to be FOR anything with the term FAIR in it's title. But oftentimes the term is misappropriated. For example when we tell our children to get in our car. Yet when the child turns 18 and wants to take the car he suddenly discovers the car is not OUR car anymore.

"Fair Trade" is like that. Trade is simply a deal between two entities. Which part of the transaction is fair?
I suppose it could be used when both parties are truly satisfied with what was given versus what was received. But in the real world how often does that really happen? Being human we almost always think what we have is more valuable than what we receive in exchange.

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