Can Facebook Shed Light on Our Passion for Trade Justice?

Part of my role at the Black Gold Foundation is to encourage people who are involved in the coffee industry to write articles or comments for the BGF blog. There is no shortage of issues to write about but most people who agree to write for us or to provide comments all seem to be coming from the “ethical” side of the industry. I have been struggling to find people from the more corporate side of the industry to comment.

This was evident on the issue of the direction being taken by Fair Trade USA, their split from FLO and their plans to open up their certification to large plantations – a move motivated (according to critics) by the interests of the multinationals. This issue has created a huge number of articles, blogs, comments and argument ranging from the CEO of Fair Trade USA defending his organisation’s actions, to the criticisms and pleas from many Fair Trade pioneers. From an outsider’s view, it almost looks like the Fair Trade World is slowly imploding.

There seems to be no end to those willing to offer criticism, opinions, defences or commentary on this issue. However, there is a group who are conspicuous by their silence – those very multinationals who are (apparently) at the heart of this debate – Nestle, Starbucks, Kraft and so on. In this entire furore, I have not found a single article or comment originating from any of the major coffee-buying corporations on this issue (I’m sure someone will now point out one that I have missed). This led me to set about scouring the web for articles, statements and anything at all I could lay my hands on from the major corporations that addressed the coffee trade, fair trade and ethics. There are a few, but very little.

I started to ask myself why the big corporations would be so silent on the ethics of the coffee trade. Surely, I asked myself, Nestle, Starbucks, Kraft and the others would want consumers to know how ethical they are, how hard they work to be fair to producers, how sustainable their products and brands are? It seems not.

Why could this be? Well, the simple, unscientific, conclusion I have come to (and this will come as no surprise to anyone) is that they probably don’t care; ethics, fair trade are merely a distraction, a side show to the real business of making money. And, more importantly, on the face of it, they don’t need to care. Why do I say this? Well, let’s take one snapshot as an example:

I have carried out some very unscientific research and looked at Facebook. Nestlé has various Facebook pages, including for example, Nescafé. The combined Facebook pages for Nescafé, Nescafé USA, and Nescafé Philippines have around 3.8 million fans. The Nespresso Facebook page has 1.7 million fans. These are huge numbers, but seem dwarfed by Starbucks which has 30 million fans. Now let’s contrast that with The Fairtrade Foundation in the UK, which has 76,200 fans, Transfair Canada which has 1,600 fans and the World Fair Trade Organisation which has 15,200 fans.

There are numerous conclusions we can draw from this very quick and somewhat lazy bit of research but, for me, the most telling thing is that Nescafé, Nespresso, Starbucks and the like are desired lifestyle brands. They have captured the imagination of consumers, and project an aspirational lifestyle. They don’t need to care about ethical values because that’s not what their followers are interested in or aspire to. If this is the case, then no amount of criticism, attack or evangelising on the part of Fair Trade advocates is going to make a difference. If we want ethical trade to become genuinely mainstream, then we need to look at what the corporations have achieved with their marketing – perhaps we need to make ethical trade an equally aspirational lifestyle brand?

Written by Ian Agnew,  Black Gold Foundation

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