Although Fair Trade coffee has been around since the 1980s, it wasn’t until the past couple of years that it received heavy airplay. And unless you’ve been reading a rare opinion, such as this one (or the rare reader of The Economist), you’d think that to question the value and effectiveness of Fair Trade certification amounts to heretical blasphemy. Despite the volume of contradictory evidence against the panacea-for-poverty status currently enjoyed by Fair Trade, there is very little open debate on the issue. The coffee industry itself has debated Fair Trade’s claims and ethical merits for over a decade now, but the mainstream public only gets a sort of “party line”.

For example, in this month’s issue of Fast Company, we learn that “Fair trade ensures workers make a living wage”: Drink Better Coffee, Save The World – Mother Earth Coffee Co. – Jim’s Organic Coffee – Equal Exchange. Yet Fair Trade does no such thing. It merely guarantees a minimum price paid to co-operatives. Whether the co-operatives pass enough of the profits on to growers, and whether that minimum price can support living wages to begin with, are well beyond the scope of Fair Trade certification. Yet magazine publishers and socially conscious bloggers keep spreading these mis-truths without so much as batting an eyelash (or, at least, fact checking).

A smaller, but yet just as illustrative, example of this selective hearing comes from comments made on this very Web site. Following a movie review I wrote for the flawed coffee documentary, Black Gold, one reader could not be bothered to read the criticisms I raised about the movie and Fair Trade’s shortcomings — choosing instead to add a promotional movie/Fair Trade comment as if I had posted a chocolate cake recipe. Stick fingers in ears; yell, “La la la! I can’t year you!”

Which raises the question: why are so many consumers, greenies, and (worst of all) greenie preachers putting their blinders on and bestowing Fair Trade with infallibility? Is the issue that these major flaws — flaws that have inspired some of America’s top roasters to abandon working with Fair Trade altogether — represent inconvenient truths that people just don’t want to hear? Whatever it is, it cannot be explained away with simple naïveté or even just wishful thinking.

The mechanics of social activism

One today’s great ironies is that we scrutinize the caffeine in our coffee ad nauseum — coffee being something we have safely consumed as a species for centuries — and yet the Fair Trade label stamped on the bag it comes in receives virtually no scrutiny.

Is it because social activists are afraid of sending mixed messages that could frustrate the laymen they are trying to convert to the cause? Social activism is like a shark in some respects: it must remain in motion or it will die. Many activists fear that if an individual cannot follow explicit, personal instructions to do their part — even if those actions may ultimately do more harm than good — it will trigger the death of awareness.

It has been fourteen years since the death of César Chávez, and many Californians still boycott grapes. Yet most have forgotten why they’re boycotting, don’t know which grapes to boycott, and/or they have no idea when they are supposed to stop boycotting. We end up with activism for the sake of activism, regardless of whether it helps a cause or not. But is buoying awareness that much more important than actually doing any good? Is blind repetition worth the price of open discussion and debate about how each of us can truly make the greatest impact?

As another point of comparison, AIDS patients and activists of the mid-1980s were so desperate for hope that AZT, which was found to be a terribly flawed drug in the fight against AIDS, was considered better than having no hope in the pipeline at all. But unlike AIDS, few of us directly experience the malnutrition and poverty of the global coffee crisis, and we certainly don’t experience any real death. Which is why I’ve come to the following explanation…

The role of “religious” faith in social activism

People desperately want to believe they can make a clear and positive difference with a simple, personal purchasing decision — something as simple as the label on their coffee. The desire for such a simple solution to exist is so strong that we are willing to commit to the first thing that comes by and sounds promising. If we then ask few questions, we can sustain the convenient façade. We can live in good conscience (or denial, if you prefer) knowing that we’ve done our part to assuage any guilt we might have about living up to the ethical standards we hold for ourselves.

Buy a Toyota Prius, drive all you want, and global warming is no longer your responsibility.

It may seem harsh, but we are all more like Pontius Pilate than César Chávez in this regard: rather than actively question or doubt, we are happier to live in blissful ignorance by washing our hands of further responsibility. Perhaps it’s only fitting that we now consume our ethics in the same way we consume our apples: in low-commitment, bite-size, pre-sliced, “fun size” wedges that prevent our hands from getting too dirty.

Fair Trade espresso: Great taste and less filling than the other leading brands.