Twenty-five years ago I took a course taught by a man who had grown up in India and who had travelled the world. He talked of seeing how coffee, tea and sugar were grown by dirt poor peasant farmers. He described the steps in getting these products to the multinational companies that then processed them for world markets. Then he said: “Enjoy your coffee, but remember all the people who have worked so hard and earned so very little so that you could have it.”
This morning I had coffee with Carole Thomas, a lady from our area who owns a farm in Costa Rica and spends over half the year there. She grows black pepper and cacao and buys coffee from a neighbouring farmer and sells these products here in Canada, largely through the Saskatoon Farmers Market.
Through talking to Carole, and also from other sources, I am beginning to think that fair trade coffee may not be quite what it purports to be. For one thing, it costs a subsistence farmer an enormous amount of money to join the fair trade program and become certified. And then, they may not necessarily get any more for their coffee than if they sold it to the private merchants, though the fair trade association may offer a guaranteed price. One other concern that comes up is that the fair trade program doesn’t necessarily buy all of a framer’s production and pays the same, no matter what the quality of the coffee. Therefore a farmer may tend to sell his best coffee to a private merchant for a premium price and sell the poorer quality beans to the fair trade association for their guaranteed price.
That doesn’t really sound like it will ever help the poor farmers to rise above subsistence level farming. I was reminded once again of something Dorothy Sayers wrote during the Second World War:
“It may well seem to you – as it does to some of my acquaintances – that I have a sort of obsession about this business of the right attitude to work. But I do insist upon it, because it seems to me that what becomes of civilization after this war is going to depend enormously on our being able to effect this revolution in our ideas about work. Unless we do change our whole way of thought about work, I do not think we shall ever escape from the appalling squirrel cage of economic confusion in which we have been madly turning for the last three centuries or so, the cage in which we landed ourselves by acquiescing in a social system based upon Envy and Avarice.
“A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.”
Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church
I think we’re further than ever from escaping from the squirrel cage, principally because envy and avarice are still the driving force of the world economy. What would it do to the world economy if individuals would renounce envy and avarice, buy products that are the fruit of honest labour, rather than flashy mass produced items made of dubious ingredients in far away lands by almost slave labour?