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Anthropology of an Idea: Fair Trade

Over the last 130 years, the term “fair trade” has been adopted by everyone from robber barons to yuppies. As a euphemism for protectionism in the 1880s, the term first came into use among Britain’s mercantile lords and America’s manufacturing titans, who were anxiously looking to guard their industries from the threat of a globalizing ...

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Over the last 130 years, the term “fair trade” has been adopted by everyone from robber barons to yuppies. As a euphemism for protectionism in the 1880s, the term first came into use among Britain’s mercantile lords and America’s manufacturing titans, who were anxiously looking to guard their industries from the threat of a globalizing world. By the 1960s, the phrase took on new meaning when global consumer activism was born. Today, fair trade is a branded lifestyle, a set of products sold at Whole Foods and Starbucks that promise moral virtue along with that chocolate bar. 

1868: Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker’s novel, Max Havelaar, is one of the first to depict trade as rife with injustices. Protagonist Max Havelaar, a bleeding-heart colonial administrator in Java, later becomes the namesake of one of the first certified “fair trade” coffees sold in Europe.

April 30, 1886: A “‘fair trade’ cry” rises up in England, the New York Times proclaims. The “fair trade” movement, a push to boost tariffs and limit free trade, gains momentum in Britain amid fears that its empire is declining and the country’s products, markets, and colonies must be protected.

August 2, 1897: America’s Dingley tariff, a dramatic import-duty increase named for Maine Rep. Nelson Dingley Jr. that raised tariffs to the highest level since the Civil War, is touted in the Chicago Tribune as an example of “fair trade.” The term has gained traction as a stand-in for “protectionism.”

August 19, 1933: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approves “codes” for the oil, steel, and lumber industries that include provisions, later described in the New York Times, for “wages, hours of work, [and] fair trade practices.”

1946: After visiting Puerto Rico and being struck by poverty among artisans there, Edna Ruth Byler begins to sell the handicrafts back in her Pennsylvania hometown, a model that would later grow into the “fair trade” movement. Her operation is adopted by the Mennonite Central Committee in 1962 and becomes the national retail chain Ten Thousand Villages in 1989.

1950s: The NGO Oxfam begins selling products made by Chinese refugees in the British market. The program’s founder later describes it as “a forerunner of what is now called ‘fair-trade.'”

1972: U.S. Treasury Secretary John B. Connally calls a U.S.-Europe trade pact dealing with the developing world “a step forward in the effort to assure fair trade practices,” thus placing “fair trade” firmly in the context of development.

November 1988: When coffee prices fall dramatically, the Fairtrade Certification Initiative is born, meant to offer a “fair” price to farmers hurt by the volatility of the market.

1992: The first “fair trade” coffee is sold in Britain under the label Cafédirect, a partnership formed by NGOs Oxfam, Traidcraft, Equal Exchange, and Twin Trading.

December 22, 1998: TransFair begins certifying “fair trade” coffee, tea, and cocoa in the United States as global sales boom. In the following six years, TransFair claims to have certified “74 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee” to the tune of “$60 million of additional income for farmers.”

December 2005: Celebrities from Mexico, China, Senegal, and other developing countries present the head of the World Trade Organization with a petition begging him to “Make Trade Fair” Elton John and Bono soon become a few of the many global stars to promote the fair trade movement.

2008: As a U.S. presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledges to fight for “trade that is free and fair for all,” criticizing existing trade agreements such as NAFTA and vowing to pressure countries like China to desist from unfair trade practices.

February 2009: Fair trade sales grow despite the global economic downturn. Twenty-five percent of surveyed British shoppers bought fair trade goods — three times the percentage who reported doing so in 2006.

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