Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fair Trade - a really basic primer

What is Fair Trade and why do I care?
According to wikipedia, Fair Trade is "an organized social movement and market-based approach that aims to help producers in developing countries and promote sustainability. The movement advocates the payment of a higher price to producers as well as social and environmental standards."

Without getting too preachy... The general approach is create a system that rewards fair pay and treatment of workers, as well as responsible environmental processes. It's not that surprising that in many cases, this can lead to higher prices. Workers can be exploited in many parts of the world (our own included), all in search of getting that bargain while shopping on well-lit stores thousands of miles away. And, it's not only the workers we have to be concerned with, but the impact some industries are having on the world. (Many discussions about the destruction of the rain forest come to mind.)

Is it the same as Free Trade?
Not really, no. The terms are sometimes used a synonyms, but in reality, Free Trade is a type of trade policy. Free Trade is a system that allows traders (or companies) to trade directly with each other, without the barrier of government policies or taxes.

Are there arguments against Fair Trade?
Yes, there has been criticism against the Fair Trade movement from both ends of the political spectrum. One thought process is that by providing what amounts to a subsidy to a "broken" system, the system is not challenged to change. Instead of supporting the small segments of an industry that are doing things the "right" way, we should be forcing change on the entire industry. The other school of thought is that the systems are "broken" because there is a market surplus. Prices are artificially low (or too low to support fair wages and environmentally responsible practices) because the industry is producing too much of their products. By providing additional funds to those industries, we are essentially encouraging them to produce even more of a surplus. Thus perpetuating the problem.

My take: I can actually see logic in both lines of thinking against Fair Trade. Ideally, entire industries that are supported by exploiting workers or the land will stop this activity. If there was a way to accomplish that in the short term, I would be all for "boycotting" the Fair Trade concept. I don't think this is a short term issue though. I also think rewarding (via our "subsidy" and our patronage) the companies or organizations that are doing things the right way is the most powerful statement an individual can make. The whole "put your money where your mouth is" thing. The risk of the surplus is an acceptable one for me; the alternative risk is that if those participating in a responsible way can't stay in business we lose our options.

What kinds of products can be Fair Trade?
It's a huge list - everything from coffee to sugar to cotton. There's a great list here that describes the risks that can be involved with the production of each. (I'm starting with coffee.)

Ok, so how do I find Fair Trade products? And how do I know them when I see them?
Many stores in the US are now selling Fair Trade products. From your typical grocery stores to "specialty" stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joes, you can find many Fair Trade products in the places you're already shopping.

Also, the beauty of the Internet can definitely help out here. A quick search lead me to 801 Fair Trade Coffee options.

In the US, TransFair USA (also sometimes called FLO) is the only third party organization that certifies that a product is Fair Trade. Other companies may say their product is, and it may indeed be, Fair Trade - but it's worth doing a little extra homework to be sure. TransFair USA uses the following logos:

It's also worth noting that Fair Trade does not automatically mean Organic. It's extremely possible that a farmer conforming to all the Fair Trade guidelines may still use some chemicals on his crops. It must be done in a reasonable and sustainable way, but chemicals may be used. Many products (particularly coffee) are both Fair Trade and Organic, so if that's important to you - you should be able to find it. (3 of the first 6 listed on Amazon were both.)

So that's it - just a quick summary of Fair Trade. Was it a recap of what you already knew? Or all new information, or a little of both?

No comments: