The Duck of Minerva

Fair trade computers

10 October 2011

I remember well the first time I ever encountered the concept of “fair trade”: it was on a poster in the cafeteria of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Bonn, where I spent time during the summer of 2002 doing research in the “Archives of Social Democracy” for my first book. The poster proudly proclaimed that the coffee served in the cafeteria was fair trade coffee, and explained the basic principle — growers were paid a decent wage for their product — along with urging people to purchase fair trade coffee elsewhere. Before too long I started to see the same symbol for fair trade certification popping up in the United States, and nowadays I can walk into my local Giant Foods and purchase fair trade coffee for home use quite easily.

During our recent discussion about Steve Jobs and his legacy, Nawal suggested that we should have “fair trade computers.” This strikes me as a very good idea, and no crazier than fair trade coffee. I can anticipate the basic objection — consumer electronics are too price-sensitive, and people won’t pay more for a fair trade certified computer — but to my mind this is flawed because a) the Apple business model shows that people will pay a premium for quality and elegance, so why not for social justice; and b) at least nowadays, there isn’t a price differential between fair trade certified coffee and other coffee of comparable quality, at least not in my local food stores (sure, Folgers and Maxwell House make cheaper coffee, but that’s a different issue; if one is buying Peet’s or Newman’s Own or a comparable brand, the price of the fair trade stuff is the same as the price of the non-fair trade stuff).

So this leads me to wonder: why aren’t there fair trade computers? Is there something about the coffee industry that makes it uniquely susceptible to the notion of fair trade, and something about the consumer electronics industry that prevents it from adopting fair trade practices? Are those parameters fixed, or could they be reshaped? The Internet lets me down on this occasion, since googling “fair trade computers” doesn’t seem to turn up much insightful commentary on this issue. So I turn to the readers of the Duck to tell me either why fair trade computers are an unworkable idea, or — and perhaps better — to help me envision what a viable fair trade computer looks like. One thing I know is that it can’t be a sub-standard machine; I can’t imagine that fair trade coffee would succeed if all the fair trade product was horrible swill while the other coffee was uniformly better-tasting. So why not a fair trade iPad? I know I’d pay a premium for such a thing if it existed, and I’d bet that others would as well.