Saturday, October 17, 2015

Vocal Consumers and SIlent Producers

It's amazing how quickly Blog Action Day rolls around every year; it increasingly catches me off-guard (which is also why this post is a bit tardy)! Perhaps fortuitously, it also happens to fall on the same day as World Food Day, allowing me to write for multiple purposes. This year's theme for the former is "Raise Your Voice", and for the latter it is "Social Protection and Agriculture: Breaking a Cycle of Rural Poverty". While social support programmes include things like supplemental nutrition programmes and accessible loans, other types of safeguards or systems also serve to protect marginal or underserved populations and can be critical in overcoming poverty. Fair trade certification has been touted as a means of boosting incomes for rural producer populations, and is supported by a rather passionate and vocal consumer base. However, as I've written about before, this fair label does not necessarily yield the anticipated benefits on the ground. This potential disconnect between the two themes of the day - the level of vocality on one hand and the actual "breaking a cycle of rural poverty" - makes for a relevant topic on this day.

Consumer activism is often approached as the primary, and sometimes only, way of individuals influencing the ethics and sustainability of large-scale and distant supply chains. People ran with the Green Peace campaign against McDonald's "rainforest beef" nearly a decade ago, and catalyzed action on the fast food giant's sourcing policies. Around that same time, millions of people followed Michael Pollan's advice to "vote with your fork" three times a day. As for Fair Trade, the 2000 activist campaign prompted a massive incorporation of certified coffee into Starbucks' retail outlets. So obviously people demanding that their products meet some social and environmental standards does have some impact on the practices of these corporations. But I wonder how much this reflects the reality and, perhaps, what producers even want.

Last year, I did a bit of research on the impact of Fair Trade certification in the coffee value chain, and it was interesting to find the few studies that had actually looked at impacts found a wide range of outcomes. The most tangible finding was that the ideal expectations of consumers, the values displayed proudly on campaign materials and in marketing, did not often match to the realities of coffee farmes. Largely focused on a fair and equitable distribution of funds, Fair Trade fails most soundly in this area, with little of the added end-cost reaching producers.

But it's rather complicated, and probably necessary to find a balance between outspoken consumers and letting things arise from the producer end. As usual, I've answered no questions and added a few. I especially wonder what happens to those not involved in Fair Trade. Are those that would most benefit from social protections excluded from participation due to the other factors necessary to ensure the certification functions?

Interested in reading about an additional Paradox of Fair Trade? Check out the Stanford Social Innovation Review article...

Read Previous B.A.D. Posts
BAD 2011: At What Cost?
BAD 2010: Water

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