Tuesday, 14 May 2013


It was World Fair Trade day on May 11th - so I'm a little late with this. 'It is a worldwide festival of events celebrating Fair Trade as a tangible contribution to the fight against poverty, climate change and the economic crisis that has the greatest impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations' in the words of the World Fair Trade Organisation

There is much to celebrate - fair trade products are gaining in visibility and really making people think about the ethics of their consumerism. But beside this we need to set our society's continued addiction to things like cheap coffee, fast fashion, sports equipment of dubious origins. The tragedy in Bangladesh on 24th April, in which over 1, 100 garment workers died is horrific beyond words and should shame us all - and yet, whilst clothing chains have been quick to offer compensation, the idea of imposing stricter building regulations initially encountered attempts to wriggle out of collective responsibility.

The fact that we can even continue to debate the importance of fair prices and decent working conditions is quite simply shameful. And perhaps the example of fourteenth century concern about fair prices might serve to highlight our own hypocrisy here. 

The fourteenth century was a time of rapid commercialisation and economic change. Despite its reputation in popular imagination, the medieval period was one in which people thought carefully and problematically about everyday life. And trade was an issue which provoked much discussion: it was largely governed by the notion of 'the just price' - the notion that the price which was ‘enough’ for a certain product should correspond with the production and labour costs. It's a good theory - but once you are trying to compete for trade and custom, you 'need' to find ways around it. And that's exactly what happened in the fourteenth century, when we find lots of attempts to justify, in theological and moral terms, the growing gap between prices and the mode of production. As a market economy grew and prices responded to market forces, preachers, theologians, and legislators all tried to find ways of justifying the change, even though the notion of the just price was their own invention anyway. It's easy for the historian to spot the hypocrisy here and the deliberate moral denial and self-delusion. Many fourteenth-century contemporaries spotted it too, and commented upon it in comic literature for example. 

Returning to our own century, we're doing something rather similar. Buying clothes and foods produced in ways we know to be unacceptable, but busily justifying it to ourselves with ever more contorted arguments because the prices are just too tempting...

If you're interested in the medieval notion of the just price, try Baldwin, J., ‘The Medieval Theories of the Just Price: Romanists, Canonists and Theologians in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 49/4 (1959), pp. 1-92.

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