What is Fairness: Let’s make Fair Trade the norm, not the outlier

28 October 2016   |   Josh Wise, Development and Communications Director, IATP

Throughout October’s Fair Trade Month, we have featured Fairness Champions, people from all walks of life with a unique perspective on what’s ‘fair’. Josh Wise is Development and Communications Director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an organization celebrating 30 years of using policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems.


In 1996, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy founded Peace Coffee, one the US’s first Fair Trade coffee companies. We did that, in part, because the dominant systems of global trade had not been working for farmers. Coffee prices were at an all-time low. The system was set up to benefit the corporations that did the international trading, not the farmers and workers who produced the coffee.

Twenty years later, Fair Trade products are increasingly ubiquitous and that is a good thing. But, the system of corporate globalization that Fair Trade was set up to answer – the system that most of IATP’s work centers around – is still largely in place. And it is still very unfair.

For me, fairness is personal. What that means is that I cannot separate what is fair from how I feel or perceive fairness in the interactions in my life. When a decision is being made that affects my life – whether it be by my boss, my spouse, or my elected officials – I want my opinion to be considered and my voice heard. I want to feel like I’ve had influence in the decision-making process, and that the outcome takes my preference into account. I’m certain that I’m not alone in having these feelings. As a social species, the desire to be accounted for, for fairness, is fundamental to what it means to be human.

Fairness in trade policy

What this means for public policy is that fairness can only be achieved through transparency, equal access, and, most importantly, equal standing at the proverbial negotiating table. That means acknowledging power dynamics – implicit, explicit, in historical context, etc. – and accounting for it in the policymaking process, so that everyone, especially those who have been historically (or currently) marginalized can have their say. The perception of fairness is critical to the smooth functioning of democracy.

Unfortunately, the current process for developing the trade rules that affect us all offers the very opposite of transparency and access. The United States Trade Representative (USTR) and trade officials in other countries have the power to keep negotiations classified, meaning even our elected representatives can’t see what is being proposed in the name of the people they represent. It’s possible to receive special clearance to view the proposals, but of the 600 or so people who are approved, over 90 percent represent multinational corporate interests. It should be no surprise that agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership ended up, when it was finally made public, being written in the favor of corporate profits – subordinating the environment, farmers, and workers in the 12 countries that are part of it. The negative effect TPP will have on jobs, the environment, and product safety is immense.

Ultimately, though, the opposition to TPP is, for many, driven by a sense that they are being left out of the process. That their personal self-interest has been reduced to numbers in a government report. That their sense of identity has been lost in the global shuffle of capital that increasingly dictates our lives. Even if it were true – which it is not – that trade deals would lift all boats instead of exacerbating inequality, the sense of unfairness would still be there. It’s because, as they say, money doesn’t buy happiness.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness

For many of us, profit maximization and resource accumulation are less important than the non-monetary benefits we get from living in a community that makes us feel at home, from the sense of purpose that we are making the world better, from the feeling that we are part of something greater than ourselves. There is a subfield of economics called Identity Economics which posits that people make sub-optimal economic (profit-maximizing) decisions because doing so reinforces one’s identity as an individual or part of a social group.

Indeed, it is our social connections that define us as people, not how much money we make. When bureaucrats, who are far removed from the everyday workings of the communities they are supposed to represent, make decisions based on aggregate macroeconomic data, our identities, personal and social, are stripped away. It is deeply, profoundly, unfair.

Making Trade Fair, Making Trade Human

If Fair Trade is to become the norm for society, rather than just another niche market, this mentality must be done away with. Trade policy must become a tool for empowering communities. Farmers, workers, consumers, communities must all be brought to the table to advocate what is best for themselves to preserve our identities as complete humans, while raising our quality of life in ways that are best suited for how we want to live.

To start this process, we at the IATP encourage democratic opposition to the TPP, Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and other pro-corporate, secretly-negotiated trade deals. After that, we can chart a new way forward for making trade policy more democratic, more open, and more fair. IATP and many other civil society organizations are working to chart this new way. We invite you to visit our website, and follow us on social media to learn more about how you can advocate for policy that supports a fair vision for globalization.

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