More and more often we’re drinking Fair Trade coffee, eating Fair Trade chocolate and buying Fair Trade clothing, baskets and jewelry. We do it because of the high quality of the products and we feel good about putting our dollars into ethical purchases. But, what is “Fair Trade?” What does it mean? Why is it a good (and necessary) thing?
While there is no “official” definition, there are several principles which are accepted including, but not limited to, paying a fair price to producers, investing in communities, insisting upon environmental sustainability, cutting out exploitive middlemen, ensuring no child labor or forced labor is used, ensuring safe and nondiscriminatory working conditions for producers as well as creating opportunities for economically and socially marginalized producers. Each certifying organization has developed it’s own standards to which it adheres. It’s a lot like organic certification was in it’s early days – lots of opinions about what’s fair.
For most of us, these things seem like a no-brainer. We think, “Of course this should be the status quo for everything we buy!” No one wants to think that the chocolate candy bar we give our kids might have been produced using child slave labor. Or that our favorite coffee is produced in unsafe facilities for ridiculously tiny fractions of the profit for coffee producers. According to a 2000 U.S. State Dept. report, 15,000 children aged 9 to 12 in the Ivory Coast alone have been sold into forced labor on conventional cotton, coffee, and cocoa plantations. Farmers on conventional coffee farms receive 2 cents from the average $3 latte, according to TransFair USA. Personally, if I’m spending that much on a cup of coffee, I’d like to know that the people who actually produced it are getting a decent cut of that, rather than it getting lost in the labrynthine marketing process. And, it goes without saying that, as much as I love chocolate, my sweetie better be reading labels before he surprises me on Valentine’s Day!
Luckily, Fair Trade is growing by leaps and bounds and it’s becoming easier to invest in ethical purchasing where we know that the people who are doing the work are empowered by our dollars and not exploited for them. In 2008, almost $5 billion was spent in the U.S. alone on certified Fair Trade products. In June 2008, Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International estimated that over 7.5 million producers and their families were benefiting from fair trade funded infrastructure, technical assistance and community development projects.
According to the World Bank, it is estimated that 2.7 billion people in the world exist on less than $2 per day. The growth of Fair Trade product sales is a very powerful way to put a dent in that number. Far better than charity, investing in these products ensures positive growth and stability for the world’s small family farmers and artisans as well as their communities. In the current economic climate, it’s not difficult to empathize with those struggling to make a living during hard times. No longer are these people just an abstract. They’re one of us.
It’s a shame that the people who grow our food continue to receive less and less, even here in the U.S. In 1935, there were 6.5 million farms in the United States with a population of 127 million. In 2003, there were only 1.9 million working farmers in the U.S. with a population close to 300 million. It’s no secret that American farmers are having a hard time making ends meet even though demand for food continually increases. When only 10 corporations account for more than 50% of global food retailing dollars, it’s not hard to figure out where the money is going and it’s not to the folks who do the hard work for it.
There are a few organizations that inspect, register and certify companies, organizations, producers and artists as “trading fairly”. Until recently there really was only one certifier in the US and that was TransFair USA. They copywrited the term Fair Trade Certified, limiting for a time, the options for others. TransFair has a long history and is well invested in the concept of fair trade. But they’re no longer the only ones we hear about. IMO-Fair for Life (fairforlife.net), Fair Trade International (fair-trade.net), World Fair Trade Organization (wfto. org) and, here in the US, to address our own nation’s producers is a fledgling organization, the Domestic Fair Trade Association (thedfta.org).
The simple choice to purchase Fair Trade products has a profound global impact. The money you spend on a candy bar, cup of coffee or handmade clothing or craft can do much more than just get you a quality product. It can protect children, improve living conditions in poor communities, encourage cooperative efforts among small producers, protect and improve the environment for the next generation as well as protecting and promoting cultural identities and traditional skills. To quote Fair Trade USA, “Every Purchase Matters. The money you spend on day-to-day goods can improve an entire community’s day-to-day lives.” Look for one of the Fair Trade logos and change the world for the better!