The economy’s recent developments have put consumers who buy with their conscience to the test. Several members of environmental and fair trade groups on campus say the question of whether affordability will trump products that cost more to promote a cause comes down to what buyers value.
Environmental issues have been pushed into the background, in terms of politics, but people might be paying more of a price in the long run, said Keith Whitworth, professor of sociology and sponsor of the TCU Society of Sustainability, a group that wants to raise awareness of sustainability on campus.
“With the global economic crisis, less attention will be directed to issues pertaining to sustainability, and thus the focus will be redirected from issues such as environmentalism and fair trade. This is unfortunate because delays in addressing sustainability issues may have far-reaching negative impacts,” Whitworth said. Daniel Allen, a junior engineering major and president of Frogs for Fair Trade, said it may become more difficult for average consumers to contribute to the Fair Trade movement and other causes like it because they rely on people who pay extra for products that promote a cause.
“You’re going to say, ‘Well, we need to help these people in other countries, or these workers are suffering, and they only get 50 cents a day for working,’ and they’re going to say, ‘Well, hey, I just lost my job’ or ‘I got a paycheck cut’ or whatever,” Allen said.
Allen said fair trade is a way consumers can have a direct effect on farmers and laborers who make products. According to TransFair USA’s Web site, which is the only third party that handles fair trade certification in the United States, workers on fair trade farms enjoy safe working conditions. Child labor is not allowed and revenue goes directly to them, giving them the chance to be competitive in the global market.
But, Allen remains optimistic. He said the financial aspect is not the only way consumers can contribute. People can volunteer their time or vote according to what they think positively affects fair trade, he said. Those who are just beginning to buy fair trade certified products will decrease, but those who are already involved with the fair trade movement are likely to stay loyal, Allen said.
“I went to the grocery store the other day and I was considering my own budget, and I decided that it was still important enough to me, and I had already got in the practice of paying a little more for those types of products,” Allen said.
John T. Harvey, a professor in the economics department, said countries have to be wealthy before they start to worry about topics such as environmentalism and labor conditions. When the public’s productivity and income increases, countries can afford luxuries like clean water and clean air and prioritize their agenda, Harvey said.
Harvey said while working more to clean up the environment can be costly, it could also create jobs. Harvey said in tying alternative energy resources to the economic recovery, the United States might not have much of a choice given the nature of the oil market, and he said he considers these alternatives to be an investment and not a cost. Even though he said ethanol is not as efficient, it has the potential to be more efficient in the future. He said it will become profitable for businesses to invest in ethanol and for farmers to grow more corn as corn prices increase.
Harvey said he is aware that this could have unintended consequences like higher food prices and shortages but said farmers can grow more corn in the short-run and the economic incentive of higher prices will make them grow more in the long-run, stabilizing prices. He said that while he has been asked before about the cost of ethanol, he keeps coming back to the question of “What else can we do?” Harvey said the U.S. cannot allow more prehistoric plants and animals to die to make fossil fuels, so other alternatives can be reached.
Harvey said members of a fair trade group on campus have approached him in the past about whether Starbucks should be required to carry fair trade coffee. The idea should be that consumer demand for fair trade coffee should make it profitable for the company to carry it, but that depends on people wanting to pay higher prices, Harvey said. He said the goal of fair trade is redistributing wealth to pay for higher wages and better conditions for workers in foreign countries.
“It’s not a bad thing for the rest of the world to get wealthier because it creates a demand for goods and services, and it creates much more stable environments internationally,” Harvey said.
Harvey said the U.S. tries to spread capitalism and democracy to other countries, but one has to look at how much of an impact it has with a clear perspective. Harvey said the different areas in the world that fair trade supports in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia all have one thing in common. The regions are divided between the people who are very wealthy and those who are very poor, with no one in between.
“Democracy in a country where 95 percent of the people have nothing? It would be nice to think it’s one person, one vote, but who realistically is going to be the political candidate? It’s going to be the people who are already terribly wealthy,” Harvey said.
Harvey said with a middle class and steady jobs, there is a higher standard of living and political stability. Now that people in the United States may feel threatened by the economy’s recent developments, Harvey said they will shift away from fair trade even if their standard of living is still relatively high.