New Internationalist

The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade

Globalization, climate change, terrorism, fair trade, human rights, health, poverty… The No-Nonsense Guides help make sense of these vast and complex issues, all in under 150 pages - providing a concise, ‘no-nonsense’ view that you can read anywhere. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be highlighting each No-Nonsense Guide in our series with blog posts from the authors concerning the subject of each book. Chapter 1 and the Table of Contents are available for The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade on our website. 

NN Fair TradeThe No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade

by David Ransom

I first came across fair trade more or less by accident, in Mexico in 1992. The country was about to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and the US. Most of the attention was focussed on maquiladora factories in free-trade export zones like Ciudad Juárez, on Mexico's northern border with Texas – a pretty hellish place when I visited it then, and it has got a lot worse since. 

But I also wanted to look wider, particularly at Mexican agriculture. Through a series of helpful contacts, I found myself among coffee farmers in Chiapas, on Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. They were just beginning to work with fair trade organizations in Britain and the Netherlands, and were very enthusiastic about it indeed. 

I confess it seemed like wishful thinking to me, since fair trade offended against almost every free-trade nostrum in the NAFTA book. But I had seen people working with it in practice, and that made a big difference – all the more so when the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas erupted shortly after I left.

Over the next few years I explored fair trade in several New Internationalist magazines. I followed a coffee farmer from the Amazonian escarpment of the Andes in Peru along the path taken by his beans to a supermarket shelf in Britain, to see where the money went. I searched for the perfect, fair-trade, organic banana in Guatemala, Dominica and the Dominican Republic – where, much to my surprise, I found it. But then, sad to say, I failed to find a fairly traded pair of blue jeans anywhere.

Eventually, when the No Nonsense series was launched in 2001, I pulled together many of the stories about fair trade that had been published in New Internationalist magazine, one of them (about chocolate) by my colleague Richard Swift. I hoped they would make a powerful narrative about how fair trade had flourished beyond my wildest imaginings 10 years earlier. 

Best of all, fair trade offered readers something positive and practical to do about the terrible consequences of 'free' trade, which involved only routine exploitation disguised in overwhelming power-plays, fiendishly complex negotiations or theoretical abstractions. 

The really quite extraordinary growth of fair trade has not, of course, come without pain. To my mind, it works best as a clear contradiction of the principles (such as they are) of free-market corporate globalization. So I could see no logic at all in granting the fair-trade 'label' to corporate giants like Nestlé or Tesco. Among other things, bemused 'ethical consumers' would find themselves being urged at once to boycott Nestlé products because it still over-sells baby-milk, and to drink fair-trade 'Partners' Blend' from the world's biggest coffee corporation.

That, however, was where the mainstream of the fair-trade movement decided to go, on the grounds that it would be far bigger and better as a result. I still think it was a mistake, and only hope I'm proved wrong. 

Even so, I had (and still have) no difficulty in suggesting that it is always better to buy fair trade than not. The No Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade might help you to decide for yourself.

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