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(Un)Fair Trade: Ethical Shopping Won't Save The World

With the next couple of week labelled as "fair trade fortnight", is the label nothing more than a way to ease the consumerist guilt of the western world?

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This year's 'International Fair Trade Fortnight' (28th February to 13th March) invites the western consumer- including, it seems, Derwent cafe customers- to 'show off your label'. The brand, established in 1992, boasts that in 2007 alone their green and blue logo "directly benefited over 7 million people - farmers, workers and their families in 58 developing countries". But there is a catch. Not only is the scheme problematic for the producer of the non-certified products if they suddenly have no one to sell to, but it is also problematic that we are still buying into the very system that causes poverty in the first place.

We are bought up as consumers. This is the first and foremost concern of our lives. We must go to university to get that ever-elusive job in order to be able to afford the house, the car, the holidays; this is the capitalist meaning of life. We are forever chasing that bargain, like slaves to the commercial carrots of '25% off'. But we are unthinking of how a multinational clothing company can somehow still reach profits yet sell t-shirts for less than a can of soup.

The problem is, even if we buy Fair Trade, we are still supporting the ideological system that drives workers in non-western countries to desperation and coerces them into near slave labour in the first place. We are condoning the very system that encourages companies to exploit: prioritising profit over people's lives in the name of efficiency.

Charity encourages us to be passive. We will buy Fair Trade products so long as we don't have to make any more effort than reaching to a different shelf in the shop or paying an extra 50 pence (and so long as we are seen by others to be taking the moral high ground.) Fair Trade allows us to feel better about ourselves, but retain our superior social position:

The true message is, as Slavoj Zizek so cogently put it,"for the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can continue in your ignorant and pleasurable life, not only not feeling any guilt but even feeling good for having participated in the struggle against suffering" .

We complain about poverty, and get upset by the charity shock tactic of a fly covered child on the TV. But if it actually came to giving up our privileged position in order to stop 'third' world poverty we are suddenly less morally concerned. The people of the West must realise that their prosperity is built on poverty. We are rich because they are poor.

A global systematic change is necessary; but this is easier said than done. This is not an anti-charity argument that we should stop helping those in need, but it must be realised that as long as we mindlessly legitimise the system through thoughtless donations - nothing will actually change. Poverty will not become history until we change the system that causes it.

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Sam Burgum Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

For more on Zizek's critique of Charity:



ddd Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

" But we are unthinking of how a multinational clothing company can somehow still reach profits yet sell t-shirts for less than a can of soup."

where are you shopping?! or what soup are you buying that is that expensive? the cheapest shirts on the highstreet are PS3.99-PS6.


Champagne Conservative Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

Christ on a bicycle.

"A global systematic change is necessary"? Oh?
And what would said "systemic change" be, O crusader for the poor and righteous?

Overturning the principle of "Trade" altogether?

Good luck.


Jim Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

That's it? No practical suggestions? Just a bunch of empty platitudes about 'chang[ing] the system', and really confused metaphors about capitalism making us all 'slaves' to a 'carrot'? Useless.


Pete S Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

Please enjoy these responses, written and presented far more eloquently than I could hope to myself;



I Love Charlie Sheen Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

What? I'm not sure how a consumerist lifestyle based on fair trade goods actually maintains global inequalities. They're developing countries.

Maybe I'm confused or thick but I'd appreciate a bit more detail.


Sam Burgum Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

Fantastic responses to my article (thank you) I hope that I can respond effectively to clarify my argument...

'I love Charlie Sheen', the problem is that at the very moment a consumer buys fairtrade goods they are doing so within a capitalist system that causes the poverty in the first place and therefore inadvertently authenticating that system. I would strongly recommend the Zizek video that I have posted at the top if you are further interested in where I got the idea from...

'Pete S', thanks for the article and video responses! I will have to check them out...

'Jim' and 'Champagne Conservative', as I am sure you will appreciate, I have 500 words to focus on one topic (not a thesis to discuss alternatives to global capitalism). Furthermore, although I have some theories, I am not in a position to solve a 200 year old question of what system would be better than capitalism. My point is that the inequalities of our economy are systematic and will remain until this system has changed (i.e. will not dissipate by working within that system)

'ddd', thanks for pointing out what was perhaps a poor example :D But I hope you got the gist nonetheless?

By alluding to overlooked problems within philanthropic cultural capitalism, my aim is to provoke discussion and questioning of taken for granted notions in society

May I quickly remind everyone that I am not against Fair Trade or Charity and that I myself give where I can and try and buy conscientiously. Having said that, I still believe that there is room for improvement and I also believe that this begins with highlighting some of the main problems inherent within charity and beginning public discussion...


Nathan Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

Definitely check the Adam Smith Institute's article on 'fair' trade. Even if you don't subscribe to its uninhibited free trade solution, it's hard not to be swung by its brutal attack on Fair Trade as a company.


Amy Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

there's no more "truth" in Zizek's philosophy than there is in any other ideology.


Dose of reality Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

This article is absolute nonsense.

"We are rich because they are poor." IS FUNDAMENTALLY WRONG - read Sach's book on how to end poverty by 2025 and forget all this ideological babble


Ralph Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

The issue here is that by taking on a moral problem as individuals we are solving nothing; we are addressing none of the problems that are, for a fact, systemic (in a word: capitalism - and let's not scoff at the word, as many vacuous rightists seem to do). Global issues are no longer approached as being political but instead as being humanitarian - the consequence of which is that we provide superficial help but leave a given situation fundamentally unchanged.

Unfortunately this constellation benefits both the liberals on the right, who want to keep the status quo of unfettered capitalism (or go further with it); and liberals on the left, who are basically pacifists and ultimately don't want real change, especially if it risks their pretty little conscience further. As a result, we've reached a deadlock where no real change is possible, so that those of us who previously cared now sit on the fence instead - not out of choice but because it's the only sensible stance left. (Raving like a po-faced, naive leftist gets you nowhere either; we have "empirical proof" of that above.)

But there you go. I love Zizek's commentary on the psychology of liberals, and it rung true when I saw a poster on campus that was advertising a talk on "ethical careers" a few weeks ago. Because precisely, how is a student going into an ethical career supposed to benefit the world, that is, change it for the better? It benefits you and your conscience, perhaps, and you get to keep your beautiful soul in tact; but it still leaves the world looking as ugly as ever. In my opinion, everyone who attended that talk should be put to the test on their supposed moral worth: they should be put on an aeroplane and be flown straight into the heart of some African civil war, be given a project management hat to wear, and be told to demonstrate they have the personal skills apt for that "ethical career" they so desperately want. Those that pass the test get the job and my personal congratulations; those the fail the test can stay there as a commiseration prize.


Sam Burgum Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

'Dose of Reality' - i wouldn't be surprised if you were an economist!
Sachs is a Friedmanite. Of course he isn't going to say that. He was part of the IMF/World Bank crusade that forced free market reform onto countries in the first place precisely so the US companies could dive in and snap up national resources and services. Sachs is a neo-colonialist and spread the ideology that made us rich on the poverty of other nations. He is not the go to man for questioning the problems of free trade because he is the proponent!

'Amy', yes there is no more 'truth' in Zizek's ideas than any other ideology. Truth is a difficult thing to assert on theory. But for me, I found his theories on charity very close to my view on capitalism.

'Nathan' - i agree, a fantastic article questioning Fair Trade as a company and well worth a read (for other people, that is the first link above that 'Peter S' posted.)


Huh? Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

"read Sach's book on how to end poverty by 2025 and forget all this ideological babble"

Oxymoron much? I like Sachs(ish) but there's not many more ideological developmental economists than him. Also, there's way too many differing opinions from respected sources (Moyo, Easterly etc.) to pretend like Sachs has all the answers and if we did what we say poverty will just end.


I Love Charlie Sheen Posted on Wednesday 16 Jan 2019

@Dose of reality:

Utter trash. Before listening to every word that Sachs tells you perhaps you should independently analyse what he actually says and why he says it. He was in charge of the Millennium Development Goals and still places a great deal of importance on their success.

Ask any two rate politics student who passed their first year how well they're doing with those.


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