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Choose, don’t force fair trade

Jonathan Klingler | Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Over the last semester, Amnesty International’s fair trade coffee campaign has made great progress on campus, most notably through the Student Senate’s Oct. 18 resolution, which demanded that only fair trade coffee be served on campus and that students be educated about the value of fair trade products. I had the privilege of attending Amnesty International’s meeting at the CSC Coffee House last week, and I was moved by the group’s genuine commitment to improving human rights and the condition of fellow men. According to the group’s Web site, its push for fair trade coffee on campus is driven by Pope Benedict’s encyclical “God is Love,” as well as the American Conference of Catholic Bishops’ endorsement of fair trade purchases “as an effective and easy way for the faithful to demonstrate their charity.”

Fair trade organizations demonstrate an innovative approach to charitable giving through the use of business to raise money for their beneficiaries/producers. Ten Thousand Villages, a retailer of handmade crafts that follows fair trade principles, is a great example of what fair trade can provide to the world’s disadvantaged people. Ten Thousand Villages uses the proceeds from its sales to pay the producers of its goods a good wage and provide them with technical and financial training. The artisans who supply Ten Thousand Villages are often able to then attain the capital and knowledge needed to start their own independent businesses. Purchasing crafts and other handmade items from fair trade organizations is in most cases an easy and fun way not only to get a first-rate product, but also to help people in the developing world become independent and free from poverty. There are few charitable organizations operating that use the free market so effectively to help those in need as Ten Thousand Villages, and we should certainly make a concerted effort to educate ourselves and others about the value of such organizations and their products.

The reasoning for fair trade coffee is slightly different than that for handmade items. According to the Society for the Advancement of Education, in 2003 15.5 billion pounds of coffee were produced while only 12 billion pounds were consumed. As a result, coffee prices are lower than the cost of production and many coffee farmers are suffering. The root cause of low coffee prices is oversupply in the market, and without encouraging farmers to diversify their crop production beyond coffee, there will be no long-term improvement. Unfortunately, I could find no mention of diversification among the materials provided to me by Amnesty International or on the Web sites of our campus fair trade coffee suppliers. Pura Vida, which gives away all of its profits (unlike other fair trade suppliers), is clearly committed to helping farmers but it must do more to address coffee oversupply. We have the ability to affect change most by voluntarily drinking Pura Vida, and there is no need for the University to make that decision for us.

Most Notre Dame students are dedicated to doing the right thing, and our University’s commitment to service and faith is part of what makes Notre Dame special. Unfortunately, the fair trade coffee campaign shares two assumptions that weaken many proposals for change. First, the lack of focus on the market-based reason for low coffee prices demonstrates a belief that capitalism and competition are somehow inherently unjust. Second, the insistence on removing coffee options rather than expanding them reveals an underlying belief that meaningful change cannot be accomplished through individual choices, but only through forcing everyone to act in a particular manner.

Global economic competition is a tremendous force that has raised wages, improved standards of living, cultural exchange and created bonds of peace. Though CNN’s Lou Dobbs may throw a daily tantrum about his perceived “outsourcing of America,” the non-partisan Congressional Research Service reported that the US actually experienced a net gain of 1.9 million jobs from outsourcing from 1977-2001 and that the presumed global “race to the bottom” in wages has never begun. As workers are empowered in emerging economies through free and fair trade, they earn higher pay and receive improvements in working conditions. Well-intentioned but irresponsible proposals, such as congressional efforts to obstruct new free trade agreements and CLAP’s living wage, only serve to delay global economic development and distort the connection between productivity and earnings. This only harms the intended beneficiaries of such policies.

There are certainly problems within the system, including the problems of exploitative regimes (which lack competitive or open markets) and unbalanced negotiations between producers and buyers, but capitalism is what we make it and cannot coerce us to do anything. Like the mirror which serves as “the heart of the Wal-Mart” in South Park, we determine what companies do through our purchases – for good or evil. Whether we boycott Wal-Mart because of labor standards, refuse to shop at Target because they say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or purchase crafts from Ten Thousand Villages, our individual decisions shape the face of the capitalist system. That force for change is closed when the opportunity to choose other products is removed as the Student Senate resolution demands or through protectionism. Instead of blaming capitalism and restricting choices, we should fight for more open markets and make wiser choices that form a more compassionate economy.

Jonathan Klingler is a senior management consulting major and the president of the Notre Dame College Republicans. He currently resides in Keenan Hall and enjoys Tolstoy and Matlock. He can be contacted via e-mail at jklingle@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.