NCFCA LD: Ranking the Definitions of Fair Trade

This post is about the 2018-19 NCFCA LD resolution:

When in conflict, governments should value fair trade above free trade.

When NCFCA debaters were told to debate about fair trade and free trade, most assumed that the word would have one, simple, easy-to-understand definition.

Wrong. Fair trade is a nebulous term, and the definitions of it are far-reaching. Let’s rank them!

Here’s a question to think about as we get started: How does defining “fair trade” make it relate to the choice in the resolution? For example, take the resolution “NATO is better than the U.N.” Define both as international organizations, and the debate makes sense. However, if we define the United Nations as a punk rock band from the 70’s NAMED the United Nations, the choice gets really… weird.

A good definition will make the judge’s decision sensible. Let’s dive in.

1. Fair Trade Agreement

“Trade in conformity with a fair-trade agreement.” (source)

Merriam-Webster defines a fair trade agreement as the following, “an agreement between a producer and a seller that commodities bearing a trademark, label, or trade name belonging to the producer be sold at or above a specified price. NOTE: Most fair-trade agreements are illegal.”

If we use this definition, the judge is choosing between fair trade agreements and free trade agreements. Free-trade agreements are legally binding contracts that dictate how nations trade with each other. The U.S. might agree to sell lemons to Slovenia for $1 apiece. An affirmative might argue we should bump that price to benefit rural lemon farmers in Slovenia.

But tying the debate on the lines of legality is rough: you’ll be in an uphill battle to convince the judge that we should routinely violate free trade agreements in the interest of fairness.

Rating: 2/5.

2. Fair Price

“Trade between companies in developed countries and producers in developing countries in which fair prices are paid to the producers.” (source)

We might be able to get away with paying impoverished farmers pennies on the dollar for their crops. This is free trade, and using the above definition we would make an argument that we should pay the price that is most fair to the producer of those crops. Some words of wisdom:

  1. If you’ve ever walked into a Whole Foods, you’ve seen companies advertise that they pair fair prices to their producers. The resolution is asking what governments should do, so the real question is whether the government should force other companies to follow their lead. Be ready to defend that!

  2. If you use this definition, have an explanation ready for how we decide what a fair price is (maybe something like paying producers a livable wage). If you can build a case around this idea, then you’ll be fine.

Rating: 3/5.

3. A Movement

“A movement whose goal is to help producers in developing countries to get a fair price for their products so as to reduce poverty, provide for the ethical treatment of workers and farmers, and promote environmentally sustainable practices.” (source)

Conflict can be created here. Because companies want to maximize profits, they aren’t likely to make the fairness of their trade a priority. Running this definition means that governments have the choice, they should pursue the goals of this movement instead of the goals of free trade.

A big strength of this definition is that it tells us directly what the goals of fair trade are. However, the mechanism for achieving those goals is still vague. How do we provide for the ethical treatment of workers and farmers? What is a fair price? These are questions affirmative debaters must answer. A prepared aff can go far with this definition.

Rating: 4/5.

Note: There’s a slightly different version of this definition that uses the word “system” instead of “movement” if you want to emphasize the breadth of fair trade.

4. A Trading Partnership

"Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South.” (source)

This one creates conflict in much the same way as the definition above. The only difference is that a partnership could be construed to mean a voluntary agreement between companies.

This definition is also great for idealistic affirmatives. The previous definition says we should strive for a particular movement which could lead to any number of outcomes. This one says that fair trade “secures rights” and “contributes to sustainable development”. It assumes successful achievement, so if your opponent points to an example where fair trade didn’t its goals, you can argue than it isn’t fair trade at all. The definition requires it to actually achieve those things!

This definition is specific in its goals, but the words are amorphous. Seeking equity, securing rights, and sustainable development have some wide meaning. Make sure to clarify in your 1AC exactly what you mean by them.

Rating: 4/5.

5. The Trump Definition

“Fair means we treat our trading partners the way they treat us,” Cohn told a conference on the sidelines of the IMF and World Bank’s spring meetings in Washington on Thursday. “If you want to insist on having a tariff on a product, which we prefer you not, the President believes that we should treat you in a reciprocal fashion and that we should tax your product coming into the United States.” (source)

When President Trump uses the term fair trade, he does so meaning that we should institute tariffs (a tax on imported goods) on countries that implement unfair trade practices toward us. This is the inverse of free trade, a clear conflict.

All of the other definitions have something in common: helping impoverished workers in developing nations. This definition is clearly different. You’ll have to devote time in your case justifying this interpretation. That makes it far harder to simply throw this definition into any case.

Also, implementing this often leads to some gray areas. What constitutes an unfair trade practice?

Since this definition differs so much from all the others, it’s likely that the debate will become about this definition and interpretation. However, it is political relevance does make it appealing, and using it for the resolution is a defensible move.

Rating: 3/5

What definitions of fair trade have you seen? Let us know in the comments!