“Fair Trade” Ruthless Criticism

“Fair Trade” – The capitalist world market
as a challenge to the consumer’s morality

Over and over again, the media and humanitarian organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign inform us about the scandalous conditions under which our consumer goods are made somewhere in the world by a multinational corporation. We learn about seamstresses in textile factories in Bangladesh who get a wage they can’t survive on. They have to work 10 hours or more a day until they are no longer able – they work to death trying to survive.

Everybody can see why this is: capitalist businesses ruthlessly exploit the poverty of people there. They don’t have to pay them anything more than a starvation wage; anybody who demands anything more is sent home and replaced with the next person – capital has a super-abundance of human resources. For these multinationals, the entire world consists of more or less profitable business locations, and if the cost factor “wage” is cheaper somewhere else, they go there – and people in a cheap wage paradise who once fit so nicely into the company’s calculations suddenly stand in front of empty factories when they become comparatively more expensive. And to make the investment profitable, not only are wages skimped on, as showed by the pictures of fire-ravaged and collapsed factories: the workers are packed together like chickens in a coop. For one simple reason: the more workers who fit into a space, the less it costs to rent the factory per person. That’s also good for profit. One is further informed that there are few workplace safety standards, so fires can spread unhindered and buildings can collapse, leading to lots of deaths and injuries. Saving on workplace safety – also good for profit.

It’s obvious: profit making has bad consequences – and those are denounced. A good example of this is the call by the Campaign for Clean Clothes: “Finally, companies like the Gap and H&M must publicly account for why they make huge annual profits and still don’t pay living wages to the impoverished employees of their suppliers.” The companies make huge profits and “still” don’t pay living wages? The accusers dramatically show how the capitalists use the wage as a tool of their profit making, and then ignore it with the easy little word “still.” They play dumb about the ghastly economic logic of the capitalistic profitability calculation by looking at it only from their moral perspective and saying: this mustn’t be! But since profit and morality exist in two different worlds, this is of little consequence to the corporations, and they adhere unmoved to the only standard that applies to them: the increase of their profit. Nevertheless, the morally outraged refuse to admit the antagonism between the workers and the business interest and assume companies are actually obligated to those they use and exploit for their profit and must take their well-being into account.

How does one arrive at such an idea? Only if – prior to all the outrage – one attributes a task to employers that they should really be obligated to: to give people work, something that is a true blessing in a place like Bangladesh, because how else should people there get any money?! One thing is true: if vast numbers of people are living on the edge of starvation there, then it appears to them almost like a blessing if someone comes along and exploits them. But he exploits them not in order to help them out of their poverty, but because he increases his benefit by exploiting their poverty.

With the moral accusation of the capitalistic wrongdoers, Fair Trade activists do not want to leave it at that; something should change in the inhumane production conditions. But how can that be accomplished? By changing themselves. As consumers, they are responsible for the evil, because they selfishly look at prices and chase cheap commodities. Instead, consumers must make it impossible, or at least more difficult, for the corporations to pursue such inhumane production conditions. They do this simply by no longer buying these products from them. It’s clear: one can imagine this “power” as “king customer.” But if the “king” spurns cheap clothes, he will probably have to buy more expensive ones. Everyone has the freedom to take a stand on this for moral reasons. But the flip side of this freedom is doing without. The less money one has, the more difficult this renunciation is, which is intended as an action against capitalistic wrongdoers. Well, say the Fair Trade activists, renunciation will probably be more difficult for some than others, but nevertheless everybody can influence conditions within the range of what’s possible for them. Apart from the fact that the Fair Trade movement can therefore never be a mass movement – these people completely ignore with their well-meaning buying behavior why this cheap production exists at all.

How then does the buying power, which should call the capitalistic wrongdoers to reason by denying it to them, generally come about? It consists in the incomes that the vast majority of consumers obtain as “wage-dependent employees.” The wages and salaries coughed up by employers are obviously also calculated very tightly in the so-called “high wage countries.” Incidentally, this tendency levels the difference with the so-called “cheap wage countries” – just look at the growing sector of the “working poor” in the US and Europe. The buying power of the consumer is therefore the dependent variable of the corporation’s profit calculation, and that forces each normal consumer to ration themselves, thus constantly struggle to renounce the desireable thing for the sake of the necessary thing and, vice versa, to cut corners on what’s necessary in order to afford what’s desirable. And precisely because of the corporation’s profit calculation, the army of those who are less and less able to voluntarily ration themselves but who are all the more forced to do without grows larger and larger. That’s one side of it. The other is: where does this purchasing power end up? Exactly where it came from: with the corporations. They compete for this limited purchasing power that they themselves generate. That’s why they constantly push down their production costs; that’s why they have bargain prices. They make these cheap offers – to point out a truism – not so that poor people can also buy necessities, but so that they can make money off poor people. To put this truism in a different way: if a profit doesn’t beckon from the sale of a commodity, no buyer will ever lay a hand on it, and that’s why there is cheap production, e.g. in Bangladesh: to grab even the most limited buying power – with a profit. The textile workers in Bangladesh are exploited so that the corporations can tap poor buyers all over the world. And so one has two developments that go hand in hand: a constantly growing poverty in the “high wage countries” and a discount industry which constantly grows because of and alongside this growing poverty and which enlists the even poorer of the world for the production of its special offers.

The Fair Trade movement’s moral appeal to the “freedom of the consumer,” its call for “ethical buying behavior” is really just mean. Or to say it more politely: it stands the world on its head. People who as both income earners and income spenders are nothing more than cogs in the capitalistic machine are declared responsible for what the capitalistic profit interest does with them. In all seriousness, they are told to do without, and of all things this is how they should improve the world. One is already forced to hear in every cafeteria conversation that people with their boundless greed are to blame for every evil in the world – it really doesn’t need to come along now as a movement.

P.S. It is a fitting irony that “Fair Trade” only opens another field of business. If the better-off want to spend a few dollars on their morality, then of course there are companies that will take the profits to be made with this niche business. That gives them, in the bargain, another label to polish up their tarnished reputations.