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The Politics of Fair Trade: Textiles vs. Food

May 11, 2013

Blogging at Foreign Policy and prompted by the death toll in the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh, Marya Hannun yesterday asked, “When it comes to ethics, why do consumers care more about coffee than clothes?”  While careful to note the limits of consumer choice (in particular, that consumers generally prefer fair trade only when price differences are marginal), Hannun observes that consumer preference is leading to change in coffee markets without a parallel movement in clothing. She notes that while Starbucks has committed to sourcing all of its coffee from fair trade sources by 2015, it’s almost impossible to imagine Wal-Mart making a similar commitment with respect to its clothing.

It’s an interesting paradox, but not one without precedent. With respect to biotechnology, consumers have generally embraced medical applications while frequently rejecting food and agricultural applications. But there’s a slightly different dynamic playing out here. Blogging at Organizations and Social Change, Stephan Manning offers a possible explanation. According to Manning,

One key to understand this challenge is what I call the fashion trap. Despite the enduring effort of large NGOs and certification bodies, one major driving force of improved labor and environmental conditions – based on private certification – remains the awareness and behavior of consumers. It takes lead consumers who are not only aware of the social impact of their purchasing decisions but who actually buy products regularly that are sourced from certified production facilities.

But here comes the problem: for certified products to succeed, their social, aesthetic and market value need to be in tune. By social value I mean the level at which labor, social and environmental standards are met in the production process; aesthetic value is the degree to which a product matches the taste of (socially conscious) lead consumers; market value is the price those consumers are willing to pay.

In other words, consumers don’t think about the conditions of production for their clothing in the same way they do about their coffee. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for fair trade coffee, according to Manning, because consumption of coffee incorporates a social and aesthetic value that makes them willing to pay a higher price. “In other words,” Manning concludes, “it’s trendy to drink coffee responsibly.”

Historically markets have tended to abstract production from consumption. Commodities consumed on a global scale certainly facilitate this process. Geographic distance can serve to hide the conditions of production from the final consumer. It’s only through sustained attention that the two are brought back into contact. The tragedy in Bangladesh connected some consumers to the (mostly) young girls who produced their clothes. But most consumers probably never even checked their labels. Until they do, little is likely to change.

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