Saturday, October 6, 2012

Fair Trade: My Unanswered Questions

October is Fair Trade Month! I will celebrate by explaining what fair trade is, and then asking a few questions I do not yet have answers for.

Image source.

What does "fair trade" mean?

If a product is fair trade certified, it means that it was produced by farmers/workers who received a decent fair wage. Not slaves.

Fair Trade USA certifies the following products: "coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa, fresh fruit and vegetables, sugar, beans and grains, flowers, nuts, oils and butters, honey and spices, wine and apparel". In general, fair trade is mostly for coffee and chocolate. In this blog post, I'm focusing on chocolate, because that's the area where fair trade most affects my life.

Wait a minute- if "fair trade" means the farmers got paid decently for their work, then does "not fair trade" mean it was produced through slavery?

Yeah, that's the big question, isn't it?

First of all, slavery is real. It is estimated that there are 2.5 million victims of human trafficking around the world. Some are sex slaves, and some are doing forced labor.

In particular, there is concern over using children as slaves in the production of chocolate in West Africa. (Note: There is a difference between child labor and child slavery, but I would argue that both should not exist.) 69% of the world's cocoa comes from West Africa, with 35% from Cote d'Ivoire- and child exploitation is a huge concern for cocoa farms in these areas.

Image source.
It's real. Google it.

Okay so you've convinced me that slavery exists in the production of chocolate. But you haven't answered my question: Does chocolate that is NOT labeled as "fair trade" come from slavery?

Well how can we possibly know? They're not going to write that on the packaging. But I get the impression, based on what I've read online, that any cocoa from the Ivory Coast is a little suspicious.

One reason for chocolate slavery is a drop in cocoa prices. Cocoa is an "unstable crop", and a drop in price forces farmers to cut costs, sometimes by resorting to slavery.

So... does that mean normally they treat the workers nice, and then in bad years they beat them up and don't pay them? What is "normally"?

Like, can we get some idea on the percentage of slave-produced cocoa in a Hershey's bar? 10%? 30%? 80%? 100%? And at what percent do I decide it's immoral for me to buy it? At what percent would it be immoral for Hershey to sell it?

If I boycott non-fair-trade chocolate, is that actually helpful?

Yeah, I don't know. To understand how to address the problem of slavery in West Africa, we first have to understand the culture and the causes of slavery. There's not going to be some magical easy solution.

Some in the chocolate industry (maybe they're a little biased) argue that "A ‘slave free’ label would hurt the people it is intended to help because it would lead to a boycott of all Ivory Coast cocoa." If you just don't buy it because you don't know where it came from, what if it mostly came from honest people who paid their workers fairly? Is it right to boycott anything not marked as "fair trade" just because some of it is suspicious? (Again, percentages could be helpful here.)

Of course, one could also argue that when you buy fair trade chocolate, you know for sure that the money goes to paying workers a good wage; you know for sure it's not supporting slavery. Isn't that superior to buying chocolate of suspicious origin?

Not necessarily...

Hey, isn't fair trade a lot more expensive though?

Well, a Green & Black chocolate bar costs about $4, while a Hershey bar of comparable size (ish) costs about $1.

BUT the fair trade chocolate is much higher quality. It's rich, dark chocolate. Is that worth the price difference? The customer can decide that.

So do I have a responsibility to only buy fair trade chocolate?

Yeah, that's the question I'm trying to answer for myself.

The economy of chocolate is incredibly complex- how can I know what effect fair trade products have on workers on the other side of the world? It's much more complicated then "Hey let's fight slavery- everyone buy fair trade! Yay!"

How can I say I know better than Hershey about the ethical way to buy and sell chocolate? I don't know anything. I'm just over here googling stuff.

Even if ordinary chocolate does partially come from slavery, does that mean it's immoral for me to buy it? I don't have an answer.

In conclusion, the effect of me buying a fair trade chocolate bar rather than regular, cheap chocolate is unclear- I honestly can't make an argument that it's immoral to buy regular chocolate. BUT don't use that as an excuse to not take any action against slavery. Yes, I've raised some valid questions and criticism, but in the end, whoever is going around certifying fair trade products is doing A LOT MORE to fight slavery than I am. 

It's easy to sit here at my computer and criticize people who are trying to make a difference in the world- as if implementing an imperfect solution is worse than ignoring the problem entirely.

Fair trade- it's not the magical answer to save the world. It's not something you're REQUIRED to buy in order to not be a terrible person. No, we need a lot more insight into the culture and economy of West Africa in order to combat slavery.

But it's a good start.


  1. I studied international development at university and found the area of fair trade to be very interesting - and complex! I love your discussion of fair trade and the questions that surround it.

  2. Cool! Do you have any more insight about how buying fair trade chocolate affects workers in Africa? I can only speculate- I would love to hear some real facts about it.

  3. DFiresideEqualExchangeOctober 17, 2012 at 12:38 PM

    Great questions. Making truly informed ethical choices requires more than just buying things because of a label. I encourage you to check out Equal Exchange chocolates and our info pages.

    Dan Fireside

  4. Thanks! I hope to continue researching what fair trade means, what effect it has, etc, so I can support companies that are doing the right thing.