Fraser Forum

‘Fair trade’ coercion clashes with university’s core philosophy

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I recently visited my old university, Simon Fraser, for the first time in several years and discovered it has now become a “fair trade” campus. I thought how wonderful: people who want fair trade coffee can now get it there.

How wrong I was!

Fair Trade certification goes much further: it means that all coffees and teas sold on campus must be certified as fair trade.

Fair Trade has been spreading across Canadian universities and colleges and now extends to 10 universities with more than 30 others seeking certification. SFU was recently ranked as the top fair trade campus in Canada by Fair Trade Canada. The push for fair trade has gone so far as to hound Tim Horton’s off campus for non-compliance. SFU’s director of food services has declared “we’ve let Tim’s know that their days are numbered if they don’t switch to embrace fair trade.”

Universities are places for critical thinking. They value evidence and respect independent thought.  How well does this embrace of “fair trade” fit with the idea of a university?

SFU’s vice-president of research has reaffirmed the value that the university places on evidence-based research, declaring  “Our faculty and students are engaged in the full continuum of research—from discovery to knowledge mobilization—to tackle the challenges our communities face locally, nationally, and internationally.”

But evidence on the benefits of fair trade is mixed. Some studies, often those of Fair Trade organizations, proclaim clear benefits. Nathan Nunn of Harvard, incidentally an economics graduate of SFU, has conducted a comprehensive survey of fair trade with a team of colleagues. They argue “the evidence is admittedly both mixed and incomplete.” They find fair trade raises prices to farmers, gives them greater access to credit, and fosters their perception of a stable economic environment. They also observed that the scope of fair trade remains small, less than 580,000 producers and workers, and wonder whether its benefits can be preserved with further growth. Even now some farmers are unable to sell their entire crop at the fair trade floor price, and must accept a lower price.

Other studies find that the poorest farmers find it too costly to meet fair trade standards. In addition,  a research team from the University of London declared  “Fair Trade may ‘work’ but does not do what it says on most of the labels: it aggravates rural inequality and… fails to make a difference, on the data collected, to the poorest people involved in the fair trade chain i.e manual agricultural workers…” The balance of this evidence hardly justifies the drastic step of banishing all other coffee from campus as if it were a toxic substance.

Evidence aside, a stronger case against a fair trade campus arises from the university’s goal to encourage students to think critically and make independent choices. Accordingly, SFU’s Strategic Vision proclaims that it “will be an open and inclusive university whose foundation is intellectual and academic freedom.”

People may prefer fair trade for a number of reasons. They may think it tastes better, though blind tests suggest otherwise. They may feel good in the belief that they are helping the poor of the world. But these views cannot justify imposing their will on others. The coercion embodied in fair trade hardly qualifies as “open and inclusive” and conflicts directly with the university’s core philosophy.

I despair for the future of universities for a number of reasons. The self-inflected group-think of a “Fair Trade Campus” adds another item to the list.

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