Fair Trade turns from a movement into a brand

November 15th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Guilt-free indulgence

We stopped buying chocolate after seeing a March 2010 BBC Panorama report about child slavery on cocoa plantations in western Africa. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire produce 60 percent of the world’s cocoa, and much of the picking is done by children who are sold to plantations by their impoverished parents or human traffickers. Some cooperatives that had been approved for Fair Trade status were later found to have used child labor and suspended from receiving the designation by the Fair Trade Foundation. That meant their cocoa could not be used in chocolate that received the Fair Trade label, which indicates that production followed certain standards and producers were being paid a “fair” price for their wares. The BBC’s point was that almost any chocolate that did not bear the Fair Trade label was likely to have been produced by slave labor.

Once or twice a year, however, we do buy Fair Trade chocolate from People Tree Japan through a local food cooperative. People Tree is a non-profit group that specializes in Fair Trade products from all over the world. According to the organization’s literature, the cocoa that goes into their chocolate bars is produced in various South American countries and Ghana, and then processed in Switzerland under the People Tree brand. Shipments of the chocolate to People Tree are not continuous. When the NPO receives a periodic shipment they announce it through their various distributors, and apparently stocks sell out rather quickly. The chocolate isn’t cheap: ¥290 for a 50-gram bar. At your local supermarket you can buy the same size chocolate bar made by Meiji, Morinaga or any other major confectionery company for as low as ¥100. Does the People Tree chocolate taste better? That’s a matter of personal preference, but chocolate is chocolate. In any case, it’s apparent that people buy it because of the Fair Trade label.

But what exactly does that label represents to most people? Ostensibly, it means that the producer, if he is a farmer, was paid in such a way that he can make a proper living on the crops he grows. But the price of the People Tree chocolate bars has not changed for at least two years, even though the value of the yen has increased by 25 percent during that time. The yen’s value, in this case, has no effect on the money that is being paid to the original producer of the raw materials, since People Tree does not buy chocolate directly from farmers. It does have an effect on the transaction between People Tree and the makers of the chocolate bars in Switzerland. Depending on the currency being used in the transaction, the exporter or the importer could be enjoying quite a windfall (the Swiss franc, it should be noted, has also risen in value against other currencies). In any case, price maintenance does not necessarily benefit the main object of the Fair Trade concept, which is the producer.

It doesn’t hurt him, either, but if the ideal behind the Fair Trade movement is to someday make all transactions with local producers fair and sustainable, doesn’t it also make sense to normalize the practice by spreading it as widely as possible? As it stands, the Fair Trade logo constitutes a kind of brand in Japan, a status that is reinforced by its rarity and its higher price. In a Google+ discussion about Fair Trade initiated by a Konan University student, one participant asks why Fair Trade items are so difficult to find in Japan while in the U.S. a wide variety of Fair Trade items are available in supermarkets at prices that are not much more expensive than comparable non-FT items. Another person is curious as to why there are “so many different” FT labels with different “standards.” Does it mean one product guarantees fair prices and another guarantees environmental sustainability? But perhaps the most trenchant comment is from a person who wonders why the NPOs who offer Fair Trade goods in Japan don’t have them manufactured here.

In fact, Fair Trade Japan’s own figures show how far Japan is behind the U.S. in terms of consuming FT products: The American Fair Trade market is almost ¥120 billion whereas Japan’s is about ¥1.4 billion. For sure, the NPOs who import FT products are small players and have no real market influence, but if they want to change that then they have to find a way of making FT products more available, either through lower prices or better distribution or both. Though consumers may logically expect FT products to be more expensive than non-FT products because farmers are being paid a fair price, the companies that deal with FT have to think about the longer term rather than simply selling goods to a select minority. Like the LOHAS label, which started out as an environmental-consumer movement and later turned into a hip, high-priced boutique concept, Fair Trade in Japan is in danger of becoming an exclusive, elitist brand, which would defeat its entire purpose.

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