I have for some time been a basher and hater of "Fair Trade," in coffee and other commodities. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, Russ Roberts and I podcastrated the whole issue nearly four years ago. Sarah Marchmont wrote a very fair-minded article about it.
Here is the basic economics--a rent is being created: a price above market price is being charged. In countries where property rights, contracts, and rule of law is tenuous, feel-gooders and scam artists have put together an unholy coalition. The feel-gooders create something called "Fair Trade" certification, which means that the farmers get paid well above market price for the coffee they produce.
Not surprisingly, many farmers want to get in on this action. But less than all can be certified "fair trade" recipients, since a price that much above the market price would create a surplus. The fair trade feel-gooders would never be able to sell the glut of coffee if EVERYONE gets fair trade certification.
So, the feel-gooders stick their fingers in their ears and shout "LA-LA-LA-LA-LA" and pretend that their partners the scam artists are doing the right thing when they hand out the "fair trade" certifications.
But remember that these are countries with little rule of law, and shoddy police enforcement. So what the scam artists in effect do is sell off the rent (the high price of fair trade certification) to the highest bidder.
The result is that, after a fairly short period, three years at most, the "fair trade" farmers are getting no more, and maybe less, than everyone else, and no more than they got before the "fair trade" scam was started. The scam artists, it's true, are skimming the profits, but the competition to become a scam artist then becomes the valuable commodity, and rent-seeking to get to be the guy who certifies "fair trade" then also dissipates THAT rent. Some government official in the country, the one who licenses the guy who licenses the guy who certifies "fair trade" farmers ends up sucking down the rent.
Consumers pay more, and feel good about themselves. The feel-gooders who started the program move on to abuse some other group of farmers with false promises. And the results are a substantial increase in dead-weight loss.
Don't believe me? Article in the National Post, by Lawrence Solomon, founder of Green Beanery in Toronto, a suburb of Buffalo.
And the German study that really reveals how it all works. In fact, as the Hohenheimers note, the certification process is so corrupt many don't even bother, and just mislabel the coffee as "fair trade" from the get-go.
All you need to know to figure out why "fair trade" and similar feel good programs are dumb is have lunch with Bob Tollison once, and have him explain what rent-seeking is. Or you can read this, I suppose, though Bob is a better bet. (Dr. Henderson gives a nice short history.) The point is that once you understand rent-seeking, you can PREDICT that stuff like "fair trade" won't work. It can't work. And it doesn't work.
UPDATE: Dalibor Rohac has a nice piece on same subject. Thanks for the tip, DR!