“Fair Trade” Coffee: Answering Peter Singer

It just came to my attention that noted Princeton philosopher Peter Singer blogged recently about a Cato study I did back in 2003 on the slump in world coffee prices. (By the way, this isn’t Singer’s first brush with Cato. He served graciously as one of the commenters in the March issue of Cato Unbound, which addressed the question “When Does Inequality Matter?”

In his blog post Singer takes issue with my characterization of the growing market for “fair trade” coffee (coffee sold at a premium price that benefits farmers in “fair trade” cooperatives) as a “well-meaning dead end.” Here’s an excerpt:

With some justification, he argues that the real cause of the fall in coffee prices was not the profiteering of multinationals, but big increases in coffee production in Brazil and Vietnam, combined with new techniques that make it possible to grow coffee with less labor and hence more cheaply.

In Lindsey’s view, if we want to assist coffee growers, we should encourage them either to abandon coffee and produce more profitable crops – and here he rightly points to rich nations’ trade barriers and subsidies as obstacles that must be dismantled – or to move into higher-value products, like specialty coffees, that bring higher prices.

What is curious about Lindsey’s argument, however, is that the Fairtrade coffee campaign can be seen as doing just what he recommends – encouraging coffee farmers to produce a specialty coffee that brings a higher price. Pro-market economists don’t object to corporations that blatantly use snob appeal to promote their products…. So why be critical when consumers choose to pay $12 for a pound of coffee that they know has been grown without toxic chemicals, under shade trees that help birds to survive, by farmers who can now afford to feed and educate their children?

To which my response is: I agree! If people want to produce and market coffee under a “fair trade” label and other people want to buy it, I’m all for it. Far be it from a libertarian to speak ill of capitalist acts between consenting adults….

So why did I call “fair trade” coffee a dead end? I did so in the context of discussing the causes of and possible solutions to the worldwide coffee glut that had resulted in record-low prices for struggling farmers. In that particular context, I criticized the “fair trade” movement for demonizing all other segments of the market as unfair and exploitative. Further, I argued that socially conscious coffee was never going to be more than a small niche market, and thus it was a “dead end” as far as resolving what was then called the “coffee crisis.” Far more promising, I wrote, was the booming “specialty” or gourmet coffee market. That assessment was based on the empirical judgment that, for the foreseeable at least, the upside of the snob appeal market was dramatically greater than that of the social conscience market.

Three years later, that assessment is holding up. As of 2005, “fair trade” coffee constituted only 1.8 percent of the overall U.S. market and 4.1 percent of the specialty market. In other words, snob appeal is outselling social conscience by better than 20 to 1. “Fair trade” products are doing somewhat better in Europe, but they’re still a minority taste.

Meanwhile, what’s going on with coffee prices? The coffee crisis was due primarily to a big runup in low-cost supply (from Brazil and Vietnam in particular). As a result, green coffee prices were stuck around 50 cents a pound during the first years of decade. With recent production cutbacks in Brazil, however, prices have now rallied to nearly a dollar a pound. Shifts in supply and demand, not quixotic denials of their relevance in determining prices, have brought improved market conditions for the world’s coffee farmers – at least for the time being.