Advertising Your Activism: How Corporations Exploit Ethics

Sex is no longer the biggest seller — activism is what loosens our wallets these days. Look at any product marketed to a younger age group and you will see tag lines and buzzwords left and right. Starbucks hires refugees, Apple has been removing conflict minerals, Target gives billions of dollars to public education. Our generation is full of neoliberalists, and our purchasing choices matter. We want the things we use and the places we spend our money to be doing good things with that money.

When it comes to our food, those taglines and buzzwords dominate every end of the market. Fair Trade, organic, local, vegan, gluten-free, natural, ethically-raised, grass-fed, free-range, non-GMO, and so many other phrases are plastered across our food. Often, these don’t even mean anything. But where many claims about our food apply mainly to the animals or crops being raised, Fair Trade directly affects people.

According to Fair Trade USA, “Fair Trade Certified™ products were made with respect to people and planet.” Fair Trade claims to promote safe and healthy working environments, uphold social, environmental, and economic standards, and empower communities. The Fair Trade USA website is littered with colorful photos of mostly people of color in less western surroundings doing physical labor.

Fair Trade wants us to believe that by buying products they have certified, we are directly giving our dollars to people living these traditional lifestyles and wearing beautiful 'ethnic' outfits while making things for us.

Receiving Fair Trade certification costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. Companies go through rigorous auditing to maintain their certification. Yet it is important to ask: do customers even know exactly what they are getting by paying more for a certified product? There isn't an exact set of standards that Fair Trade Certified™ products are held to. Minimum fair prices are applied to a lot of products, but more or less, they are simply supposed to follow responsible sourcing practices.

More often than not, a Fair Trade product is just made by a company that can pay enough money for the certification and pay intermediaries more for responsible sourcing.

Coffee is a key product for fair trade marketing. The Fair Trade USA website states that if you are drinking Fair Trade coffee, you are helping a farmer escape poverty. Coffee is grown in some of the counties with the lowest incomes, including Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. Fair trade marketing of coffee very directly appeals to our desire to buy activism.

Klatch Coffee, sold at the Motley Coffeehouse, has a wide range of Fair Trade certified and organic products. Stumptown Coffee, sold at the Grove House, does not sell any Fair Trade certified products, but holds themselves to responsible and ethical sources practices. Groundworks Coffee, sold at the Pit Stop Café and available at McConnell Center, only offers certified organic coffees and advertises being fairly traded but is not Fair Trade certified.

Regardless of their certification or not, we as consumers don’t exactly know if the food is produced ethically or not; we can only make our choice based on the claims the product is making. Starbucks does not offer any certified organic or Fair Trade certified coffee. Stumptown may have more ethical sources practices than Klatch Fair Trade certified coffee, but there simply isn’t transparency about where our food comes from.

Growing coffee is hard. There are many steps from the ground to the cup. Planting, harvesting the cherries, processing the cherries, drying the beans, milling the beans, exporting the beans, roasting the beans, grinding, and brewing are all involved. The tiny farm conjured up by the term “fair trade” likely does not have the capacity to make enough beans following certain standards and turn a profit.

Local coffee is another marketing trap. We don’t grow coffee beans in southern California; it's simply not possible. Small coffee shops like Augie’s and even Verve love to tout “Drink Local Coffee,” but at best, the coffee is locally roasted. When a business can’t advertise their coffee as organic or fair trade, the last activist selling point they end up with is “local.” Yes, supporting small business is fantastic for the local economy, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that local roasting makes coffee any more ethical.

Making ethical food choices is important, don’t get me wrong, but when it comes to coffee, I spend up to $5 a cup for exactly what I want. That $5 pays not only for the end taste, but all the means that went into making it. Fair Trade certification does not mean all that much. Next time you spend an extra dollar or two on something that is Fair Trade or otherwise responsibly produced, take one extra second to think if the difference in production will make an impact in the end or if you are making activist purchases to assuage other guilt.

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