Is Fair Trade a Fair Deal?

I am a hippy, dippy, long skirt and Birkenstock wearing, soap making, farmer’s market shopping, non-profit working, dyed in the wool, bleeding heart liberal.

I also love to shop. And I love to eat. And I enjoy my cushy life. But, do I enjoy my cushy life to the detriment of others?

Over the past few decades, most of us have become aware that we are living in a very small world. We speak of a global economy and a global village, as technology brings us ever closer together. And, as the world shrinks, we become more and more aware of one another’s needs, one another’s heartaches.

It has become impossible to do something as simple as buy a t-shirt or a pound of coffee without realizing that we are impacting the lives of others. The images of children working in sweatshops and exhausted workers in coffee fields in Columbia, Brazil, and Costa Rica flash before our eyes on the news and the internet. If we are unaware, then we’re just not paying attention.

So, here I am, a bleeding heart liberal faced with a moral dilemma. How do I maintain my comfortable lifestyle while staying true to my convictions and myself? How do I guarantee that the products I buy do not create difficulties for people elsewhere on this planet? How do I make sure that the harvesting and production process of the food I consume does not destroy the environment in which I, or others, live? How do I live a sustainable lifestyle?

If you are not familiar with the world of Fair Trade, I invite you to explore a wonderful world of sustainability, equality, justice, and environmental responsibility. If you are already familiar with Fair Trade, I invite you to share what you know with others.

Here are a few frequently asked questions regarding Fair Trade”¦

What is Fair Trade?

Fair Trade USA logo: Every Purchase MattersFor a business or a product to be certified as “Fair Trade,” the employees must receive a living wage. The environment must be protected. Businesses must be sustainable and have a positive influence on their community. There is no child labor.

One of the best sites for learning about Fair Trade is the Fair Trade USA site. There you can learn about the history of Fair Trade, how to become certified, and Fair Trade products.

What is sustainability?

The Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability as,

Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.  Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.

Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have, the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.

If a company says they’re Fair Trade, are they really?

It’s possible. But you may need to do your homework. I’ll admit it”¦ I love Starbucks. I live in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s pretty much a requirement for me.

Advertisement reading "Your Starbucks. Every latte, every cappuccino, 100% fair trade coffee."
Starbucks ad from 2010 – their goal is to reach the 100% mark by 2015

Now, I know the plight of coffee bean pickers worldwide. I’ve read the reports of how they live. I’ve seen the pictures of them working in the fields and the shacks many of them call homes. It’s shameful for me to ever let a drop of coffee pass my lips if people who can earn a decent wage do not harvest it. I know this.

So, when I heard that Starbucks had started buying Fair Trade coffee beans, I was ecstatic. My guilt was assuaged. (You can learn more about Starbucks and their purchasing records on their Global Responsibility and Progress Report.)

While Starbucks has made a tremendous difference in their business practices, they have yet to convert all their purchasing power to Fair Trade sources. And when I buy coffee from other shops and restaurants, because I just need that jolt of java, I somehow neglect to ask from whence commeth my beans.

As consumers, we must educate ourselves. Those companies are in the business of marketing. If they can make money off of us without changing their business practices, why, on earth, should they change? They will only do so when we demand change. When we all start marching up to our baristas of choice and saying, “Make mine fair trade, double shot, caramel, soy,” they’ll start listening.

How do we know if a company is really Fair Trade? One way is to research where they buy their products. They should tell you, straight out, when you ask, but you may need to do a little digging.

Is supporting my local businesses the same as buying Fair Trade?

Probably not! And here’s the reason why. I’m guessing that if you’re reading this article, you do not live in the developing world. You most likely live in North America, Australia, or Europe. You most likely have laws that keep young children from working in your factories and laws mandating a minimum wage for workers.

Fair Trade standards are set for those who do not have these laws to protect children and other workers from harsh working conditions and sub-standard wages. Fair Trade means that these workers, generally found in developing countries, will be given a living wage for the communities in which they live. They will not need to live in substandard housing. Their children will be able to attend school. They will be able to feed their families.

Yes, we all want to shop local. But our reasons for doing so are not necessarily the same reasons for shopping Fair Trade. We shop local because we want to stop the wear and tear on our roadways and the additional pollution to our air caused by the shipping of products from long distances. We shop local because we cherish our local farmers, artisans, and merchants. We shop local because we believe in supporting our communities.

We shop Fair Trade because we know there are people in our world who are desperate for food, shelter, clean water, education, and  basic health care and these same people are working to supply many of the items we are using in our daily lives. We are buying these items at low cost, more often out of a need to feed our “consumer mentality” than a need to feed hungry bellies.

Many of us complain of having “too much stuff,” while these workers cannot earn enough money to buy the essentials for their daily needs. There is an enormous disconnect in our minds and in the production-to-consumer system.

Is a company with good/fair business practices Fair Trade?

Yes and no. Again, what you’re looking for is businesses that have been certified as Fair Trade businesses. Of course, you will always want to support businesses that you know have good and fair business practices. You want to know that they treat all their employees fairly and equitably; that everyone receives equal pay for equal work and a living wage. You want to make sure that hours are fair, benefits are fair, and that you are receiving quality merchandise for the money you spend. All that makes for responsible shopping and business dealings. But, when you are buying products that come from developing countries, and items that are known for exploiting either workers or the earth, be cautious.

What products are known for exploiting workers/the earth/animals?

  • Flowers & Plants (e.g., palms and any products containing palm oil, such as candy & toiletries)
  • Personal products (e.g., hair care, lotions, soaps)
  • Clothing
  • Linens
  • Food (e.g., coffee, tea, chocolate, vanilla, herbs, spices, fruits & vegetables, honey, nuts, sugar, wine and other alcoholic beverages)
  • Athletic equipment (e.g., different kinds of balls)

Is this list overwhelming and frustrating? Does it shock you? It should. Most of us go through life unaware that the products we use on a daily basis are causing harm to the earth in which we live, and her inhabitants who suffer because of the choices we make. We happily munch on our candy bars with no thought to the starving tigers and orangutans Indonesia. We kick our soccer balls, not once thinking of the overworked children in Pakistan who stitch them together.

When we shop, we must know who is supplying our goods. I’ve long thought that I will buy things that are “Made in China” or “Made in Sri Lanka” because the people in those countries need to be employed and feed their families as well. But, what do I know about the business practices in those countries? Do I really know that they are protecting their workers? Do I really know that there are no sweat shops, no children being forced into labor, no substandard wages and working conditions causing physical and mental harm to employees?

When I buy products that are from another country and they are certified as “Fair Trade,” I am assured that the artisans who created them, or the growers and harvesters, who provided them, are valued members of the supply chain. These people are able to maintain some sense of their own worth as they work to provide for themselves and their families. And, as they harvest the land, Mother Earth is protected for future generations.

How can I shop for Fair Trade products?

World map showing countries that support small farmers in the Equal Exchange Co-op - The United States, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, the West Bank, Ethiopia, Uganda, DR Congo, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and Sumatra.
Equal Exchange – Supporting Small Farmers in their Efforts to Build a Better Future for their Families & Communities

Even a decade ago, I might have told you that this would be a difficult venture. I’d have told you that you might have to look for a Ten Thousand Villages or a Third World Handarts shop. I would have told you to organize an alternative holiday market and invite local and international non-profits to participate. Many of them have contacts the world over for finding artisans and fairly created and marketed goods.

In my community, I’ve coordinated just such a market, the Multifaith Alternative Holiday Market, for five years.

Kiondo woven bag - a green striped bag with tan handles.
Kiondo woven bag

While we have the traditional non-profit gift offerings, such as Amnesty International and Church World Service, giving our shoppers powerful ways in which to help others, we also offer Fair Trade goods. One of the favorite tables each year features coffees, teas and chocolate products from Equal Exchange, which allows online shopping for individuals, as well as bulk shipments for organizational sales. Another favorite is the Tembo Trading Company which features beautiful kiondo, handwoven bags.

If you do an online search for Fair Trade, the options today seem to be endless. From t-shirts to chocolates, palm oils to home decor. One shop I’ve recently discovered, thanks to one of our kind and compassionate editors, is Desi Store. Like many Fair Trade merchants, they seem to have a little of something for everyone. And, as you will find with many Fair Trade run shops, the “employees” have day jobs to sustain them as they support the work of the farmers and artisans in far off places around the globe.

How to become a Fair Trade shopper”¦

You will have many choices to make. Sometimes you will need to spend more for an item, so your choice will be, “Do I really need this? If so, am I willing to pay more in order to support someone who really needs this money, rather than a large corporation that is”¦” Well, need I say more?

Remember that Google is your friend. And there may be more Fair Trade opportunities in your community than you know. Support them. We had a lovely, little Fair Trade shop that closed due to poor business.

So, set new goals for yourself. Shop in your local co-ops. They’re full of Fair Trade items. And start researching. The power is in your hands. And the choices you make will then empower many people.

By Tamalyn

Still seeking a world of peace & justice, this minister, mate, and mom - an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), finds great happiness and God's presence in many places: from sandy beaches to the top of a Teton, soup kitchens to used bookstores. Tamalyn embraces the philosophy that "Life is Good," but we have much work to do.

6 replies on “Is Fair Trade a Fair Deal?”

Great article! It’s clear how much work and thought you put into it, and it’s super informative on the whole fair trade process, which is great because I wasn’t sure I could define fair trade even though I knew it was better. Thank you especially for those links to fair trade stores!

As consumers, we must educate ourselves.

Yes, a thousand times yes. Whenever I hear someone say “But we can’t do shit” I hear someone rolling over and giving up. If we don’t purchase, the company doesn’t get any money. No company doesn’t want money. And it will be hard and it will be frustrating and nobody expects you to do a 180 in one week. But think, ponder and change what you can.

I’m trying to learn not to look at the cost as “prohibitive” and, instead, look at these products as things I can slowly acquire. When I need underwear, I just need underwear and I’m going to Target. But, when I need a new scarf, I can be more selective.

And, it’s kind of like buying organic. Most of us can’t afford to go “all the way,” but we can find a happy balance for our own budgets, lifestyles, and consciences. Then, when we win the lottery, we can make the big switch.

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