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This year’s ‘International Fair Trade Fortnight’ (28th February to 13th March) invites the western consumer- including, it seems, Derwent café customers- to ‘show off your label’. The brand, established in 1992, boasts that in 2007 alone their green and blue logo “directly benefited over 7 million people – farmers, workers and their families in 58 developing countries”. But there is a catch. Not only is the scheme problematic for the producer of the non-certified products if they suddenly have no one to sell to, but it is also problematic that we are still buying into the very system that causes poverty in the first place.

We are bought up as consumers. This is the first and foremost concern of our lives. We must go to university to get that ever-elusive job in order to be able to afford the house, the car, the holidays; this is the capitalist meaning of life. We are forever chasing that bargain, like slaves to the commercial carrots of ‘25% off’. But we are unthinking of how a multinational clothing company can somehow still reach profits yet sell t-shirts for less than a can of soup.

The problem is, even if we buy Fair Trade, we are still supporting the ideological system that drives workers in non-western countries to desperation and coerces them into near slave labour in the first place. We are condoning the very system that encourages companies to exploit: prioritising profit over people’s lives in the name of efficiency.

Charity encourages us to be passive. We will buy Fair Trade products so long as we don’t have to make any more effort than reaching to a different shelf in the shop or paying an extra 50 pence (and so long as we are seen by others to be taking the moral high ground.) Fair Trade allows us to feel better about ourselves, but retain our superior social position:

The true message is, as Slavoj Zizek so cogently put it,”for the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can continue in your ignorant and pleasurable life, not only not feeling any guilt but even feeling good for having participated in the struggle against suffering” .

We complain about poverty, and get upset by the charity shock tactic of a fly covered child on the TV. But if it actually came to giving up our privileged position in order to stop ‘third’ world poverty we are suddenly less morally concerned. The people of the West must realise that their prosperity is built on poverty. We are rich because they are poor.

A global systematic change is necessary; but this is easier said than done. This is not an anti-charity argument that we should stop helping those in need, but it must be realised that as long as we mindlessly legitimise the system through thoughtless donations – nothing will actually change. Poverty will not become history until we change the system that causes it.

This Article Was Published in ‘Nouse’ (University of York) 10th March 2011

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