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Wednesday 1 July 2015

Middle Class Marketing and Bubbles of Archiac Amusement

There are few terms that scream middleclass marketing in the 21st century like “Organic” and “Fairtrade”. The marketing technique is simple. Target people who can afford to pay more for a product and reward them with either the caring or smug knowledge that they are doing something “good”. In this respect it might be argued that they are close cousins in the world of retail, but the two subjects have some distinct differences. 

Before we discuss these two topics, let’s get one thing straight from the start. When you buy Organic or Fairtrade you are, more than likely, buying from the same corporations who produce and sell their lower priced equivalents. So, before you stand legs akimbo with your weekend Che Guevara tee-shirt and declare that these two brands will be the fuel for your anti-austerity/anti-capitalism march, don’t fall into the delusion. You are not “sticking it to the man” in this particular shopping decision.
The Organic Food Movement has its origins with the 19th century Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner. Steiner, like Harvey Kellogg, was just one of many food faddists that exerted their cult-like influence over Victorian society. Steiner believed in supernatural essentialism and promoted the concept of a literal spiritual connection with earth. Much of the appeal of Organic food comes from these pseudoscientific ideas and the appeal to nature logical fallacy. We think of toxic chemicals poisoning nature and by extension not doing us much good either. The term “chemical” gets ignorantly banded about as if it were another name for poison. When tested against an exact non-organic equivalent, a piece of Organic food has proven to have no more nutritional value. There are various studies producing conflicting results, but what seems to be the case is that freshness is more the determining factor in an item of food than whether or not is produced in line with USDA Organic guidelines.

Is it better for the environment? Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute's Center [US sp.] for Global Food Issues estimated that if the world switched to Organic farming we would need to cut down “10 million square miles of forest”. Say what you like about genetically modified and modern farming methods, but they have a far better chance of feeding the world’s undernourished and empowering third world nations than the Organic Food Movement. 

Fairtrade works off the premise that by paying more for a product, such as coffee, impoverished and exploited farmers are paid fairly for their work. This seems like a good system. Many corporations take advantage of cheap and desperate labourers in third world countries to produce their products. Having proportionality very little to pay their workers, the corporations can sell their products at competitive rates and still make a fat profit. By using the Fairtrade brand, the price increase is justified by the perceived good it does others who live less fortunate circumstances. Retailers are unlikely to want to take a cut in their profits in order to give their producer a larger share of the profits. However, they are willing to make this change if their customers are willing to buy their products at a higher rate, especially if they are also getting a bigger cut of the profits than with other products. 

However, the story of Fairtrade is far from a simple win/win. Firstly, only five per cent of Fairtrade price makes it back to the farmers. Secondly, Mexico claims 23 per cent of the market share, making it the biggest recipient of Fairtrade subsidiary. 181 of the 300 Fairtrade coffee producers are located in South America and the Caribbean. Poorer countries like Rwanda have a mere 10 and Ethiopia only has four. Thirdly, the Fairtrade set-up resembles many broken systems that do not take into consideration all the other repercussions that might incurred with what seems like a good idea on the surface. Indigenous farmers outside of the Fairtrade umbrella suffer due to the market oversupply encouraged by the need for Fairtrade to guarantee a minimum price. Meanwhile farmers inside the umbrella are bound by strict rules that forbid them from employing full-time workers, meaning they have to employ migrant workers at harvest time. Fairtrade suppliers become locked into a system of producing crops that got them into poverty in the first place and denying the rural poor a secure job. The final insult has to be the insistence of a twee image of idyllic rural families using traditional methods to produce these crops is cultivated to tie in with the fashion loved by the middle class consumers. This means that the use of modern farming methods, machinery and economical systems are denied. Instead we have little barely sustained bubbles of antiquity that help us sleep better at night once the caffeine of our coffee has worn off. 

In conclusion I believe the concept of the Organic brand is an outright con that finds its roots in quasi-religious Victorian food cults. I believe that the Fairtrade concept is a good idea, but does not go nearly far enough and might be disempowering to Fairtrade farmers and harmful to other rural inhabitants. Organic and Fairtrade use the customer-perceived value marketing strategy. However, whereas overpriced designer brands of clothes appeal to the elitists in our society, the Organic and Fairtrade tactic targets inverted snobbery, sentimentalism, self-righteous smugness and, in some cases, exploits a genuine desire to be charitable.

 (Sources for this essay provided upon request)

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