GreenThinkers praises Wolfville, Nova Scotia, for declaring itself a “Fair Trade Town,” the first in Canada, but I’m skeptical. The most complete information I’ve been able to find on the declaration is in the town’s own news release, supplemented by material from the certifying body, TransFair Canada. It seems to me that Fair Trade(TM) certification is something a government ought not to pursue.
“Fair trade,” if you’re not familiar with the concept, is in practice about buying imported goods through non-profits, with the aim being to send money to smaller, more traditional producers rather than into the coffers of for-profit corporations. The canonical example is coffee, in which fair-trade principles favour boutique farmer-owners following traditional sustainable practices over big-time agribusinesses that plant vast tracts of monocultures and employ locals as labourers.
Done properly, the extra cost to the consumer for fair-trade goods should be negligible, and choosing to buy fair-trade goods strikes me as a perfectly defensible individual choice. The certification process for fair-trade goods is well-established and can generally be counted on to mean that the original producers haven’t been cheated, lied to, or otherwise abused by buyers throwing their economic weight around, or taking advantage of savvy about the world that a small-time Third World farmer doesn’t have.
Now, Fair Trade certification for a town is a different thing. TransFair offers this certification if a municipality meets certain criteria that don’t seem that difficult to achieve. Wolfville, population about 4,000 (plus 3,000 students at Acadia University), needed a town council committed to serving Fair Trade coffee and tea and whatnot when it offers refreshments at meetings, an unspecified number of other local institutions (schools, churches, and so on) doing the same, and one coffee shop and one grocery selling Fair Trade goods.
Also, and here’s where I take issue, a fairly major commitment from the town to promote the cause, by passing a resolution, assigning a staff member, convening a “steering group” to organize Fair Trade events and develop more Fair Trade-oriented projects, and seeking media coverage of the Fair Trade effort.
Fair Trade is a morally pleasing idea but it’s also an owned brand — hence all my uses of capital letters in this post. TransFair even offers tips on the proper use of terms in municipal promotional materials:
Please attempt to use proper Fair Trade terminology when creating Fair Trade Town materials
Fair Trade capital F, capital T
Fair Trade Certified capital F, capital T, capital C
Fair Trade certification capital F, capital T, lower case c
fairly traded all lower case
fair trade (non-certified) all lower case
Fair Trade Certified products capital F, capital T, capital C, lower case p
In 2004-05, the last fiscal year for which TransFair makes an annual report (PDF) available on its website, it pulled in nearly $290,000 in licence fees, and its operations netted the organization $20,000. Not a fortune, by any means, but still. It might be duty of a town government to make ethical choices, but not to promote a particular organization’s seal of approval.
The CBC reported on Wolfville’s certification a few days ago, quoting Mayor Bob Stead:
“I think the spin that becomes the local attraction is in fact the extension of the concept of fair trade to buy local and a fair return to the producer locally — that’s where the rubber hits the road in terms of the concept,” he said. “Other than that, it’s the conscience of the community speaking when it says that we will in fact support the notion or the concept of fair trade.”
It’s a little hard to say just what Mayor Stead means, but he appears to favour municipal purchasing policies favouring local producers, too. This poses an additional ethical problem for a government: if the local alternative provides less value for money than a supplier from far away, is it an appropriate use of limited tax dollars to support an uncompetitive local enterprise? A government doesn’t create wealth by funnelling into a business that offers a worse deal than another, otherwise we could take all our tax money and hand it to corporations and we’d all be filthy rich. Isn’t the money better left in the hands of the taxpayers, to use as they see fit for themselves?