Fair trade is a term you are most likely hearing with increasing frequency, but you may be hesitant or reserved from diving head first into its mysterious realm. You may have seen it on a coffee label, a banana or maybe your makeup, and are wondering exactly what it means. Here is your chance to take the plunge and find out.
Fair Trade…What’s that?
Fair trade is a trading system that is rooted in its relationships of mutual respect between producers and their trading partners. The term fair can mean anything to anyone; however, in the fair trade industry it refers to several necessary and unfailing qualities. The partnership guarantees the producers (those laboring to create the goods) are paid a living wage to reflect the work they do. Essentially, the system pays workers what they deserve for their skills, time and energy, as opposed to exploiting them for minimal pay, which has gradually become the accepted norm for traditional international trade. The importers and fair trade organizations provide an atmosphere of equal opportunity and advancement for poorer producing communities, especially for disadvantaged individuals. In addition to a fair wage in a local context, the producing communities are able to enjoy a safe and healthy work environment (1). Under these practices, it is generally the case that the earth’s resources, which yield the means of production, are considered and protected, making fair trade an environmentally sustainable mission (2).
There is an assortment of goods that are fairly traded and the list continues to grow. Some that we already enjoy are coffee, tea, produce, health and beauty care products, home goods (clothing, linens, textiles), crafts, jewelry, furniture and others.
Why Should I Buy Fair Trade?
There are many reasons to consider fair trade goods. Whether your main motivation is helping yourself, helping others or purchasing high-quality items, the fair trade umbrella has you covered.
There’s a Whole World Out There. The source countries (generally from Central America, South America and Africa) are poor in monetary wealth, but rich in vibrant culture. When you purchase something like furniture, clothing or crafts, consider the source. If you choose to buy these items from a reputable fair trade vendor, not only will you be supporting the talents of a true artist, who is likely a woman or man with a family, much like your own, but you will have purchased a unique (perhaps one of a kind!) item that carries with it the history, beautiful culture and strong traditions of the community (1).
It’s Your Earth; Save It. It turns out it is a small world, after all. While the globalization of trade and industry has accomplished tremendous feats in development, knowledge and spreading wealth for some, it has equally contributed to the rapid destruction of that which makes it all possible—the earth’s natural resource base (2). Fair traders, especially small farmers, adhere to strict regulations to conserve natural resources and maintain the environment, as they are in tune with the fact that if we are good to the earth, it will be good to us.
Quality. The quality of fair trade goods is often very high. In the case of agricultural goods, your food may be supreme because fair traders consider the environmental toll of production. A great example is fair trade coffee, which is often organic and shade grown, resulting in a better-tasting way to start your morning (1).
Let’s Talk Turkey. The idea that fair trade goods are more expensive may turn off some consumers. Fairly traded crafts and home goods do not cost more than comparable traditionally traded goods. The difference is cost distribution. Because the legendary exploitative “middle-man” is not entirely necessary, a larger percentage is able to support the producers and allow them to continue their work (3). In the case of agricultural goods, it is possible for their cost to be slightly higher to the consumer. While it is true that every penny counts, you get what you pay for. Only you can decide what is important to you.
Purchasing fairly traded goods guarantees a quality product for you and your family and supports an effort to extend our quality of life abroad.
Who Decides What Is Fair?
Organizations like the Fair Trade Federation (FTF) and the International Fair Trade Association (IFAT) establish criteria for workers’ wages, environmentally sustainable practices, and healthy and safe working conditions. Fair Trade Organizations (FTOs) work directly with the producers and adhere to the regulations established by FTF and IFAT (3). Items such as handcrafts do not yet carry a certification or seal; however, the Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO) has established certification requirements for fairly traded commodities. For food products, you can be certain you are purchasing genuine fairly traded goods if they carry the Fair Trade Certified logo (1). WF
1. Fair Trade Resource Network, “Fair Trade Q & A,” www.fairtraderesource.org/learn-up/faq, accessed January 12, 2009.
2. H. French, “Costly Tradeoffs: Reconciling Trade and the Environment,” Washington, D.C., Worldwatch Institute, 1993 Mar. 74 p. (Worldwatch Paper 113).
3. Fair Trade Federation, http://www.fairtradefederation.org/, accessed January 12, 2009.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, March 2009