What is Fair Trade and Why Should You Care?

When I decided on Christmas Day that I wanted to take Salutations in a new direction ~ to sell things that matter rather than just things ~ I had no idea the wealth of fabulous resources, products and organizations that exist in the world today to help all of us buy and sell things that make a difference. I have learned a great deal about the meaning of the phrase “fair trade” and I’d like to share some of this information with you.

What is Fair Trade?

In a phrase, fair-trade products are “quality products that improve lives and protect the planet.” {Fair Trade USA} Fair Trade USA works with Fair Trade International to certify coffee, tea, grains, chocolate, sugar, spices, herbs, fruit, vegetables, certain textiles, wine and more. They promote environmental sustainability starting at the farm level, by developing and certifying growing cooperatives around the world, and connecting domestic importers to cooperatives that uphold social, economic, and environmental standards.

For manufactured products, such as apparel, fair trade standards are introduced not only into the farm where the cotton or linen is produced, but also into the factory, so that workers’ living conditions and wages are improved there as well.

Rather than creating dependency on aid, Fair Trade uses a market-based approach that empowers farmers to get a fair price for their harvest, helps workers create safe working conditions, provides a decent living wage, and guarantees the right to organize. This allows farming and working families to eat better, keep their kids in school, improve health and housing, and invest in the future.

Why We All Should Care

Here is the statistic that got me: A staggering 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, according to a 2000 US State Department report.

Here’s another one: There are 284,000 children in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon working in hazardous tasks on conventional cocoa farms, according to a 2002 International Institute of Tropical Agriculture study directly involving more than 4,500 producers.

The list goes on, but you get the message.

The money we spend on everyday goods can improve an entire community’s day-to-day lives. Here is the story of Cesar and Olga, a couple who make jewelry for our new line The Andean Collection: “Prior to working with The Andean Collection, Olga sold grain at a local market, and Cesar was an employee in a poncho workshop, often forgoing meals so that their three children could eat. Now they consistently have food and good shelter, and are working toward securing a better education for their children.”

The more I learn, the more convinced I become that we cannot continue to support products that are made cheaply on the backs of children and adults who are powerless to protect themselves. While walking the trade show floor in Atlanta in January and in Birmingham, England earlier this week, I saw many products that were stylish, on-trend and really inexpensive. I have begun to develop an eye for the cheap reproduction items that are imported by middlemen who buy the products at rock-bottom prices and take their cut, turning a blind eye to the true price ~ the human capital ~ that actually went into the production of those goods.

It feels really good to keep walking past these booths and spend a bit more time and inquiry seeking out those who truly care about their fellow human beings who are creating the products they’re selling. I cannot describe how gratifying it is to have in-depth conversations with people who recount stories of traveling to the source countries and working in partnership with the producers of their goods, developing true win-win relationships that improve the lives of those involved.

What Fair Trade is Not

Fair Trade is not charity.

Fair trade promotes positive and long-term change through trade-based relationships that help producers to meet their own needs. Its success depends on independent, successfully-run organizations and businesses – not on handouts.

Fair Trade does not necessarily result in more expensive goods for the consumer.

Most fair trade products are competitively priced in relation to their conventional counterparts. Fair trade organizations work directly with producers, cutting out exploitative middlemen, so they can keep products affordable for consumers and return a greater percentage of the price to the producers. I can definitively say that the new lines that I have ordered, all of which are fair-trade, are no more expensive than other products that are similar in quality.

That being said, I am not bringing in really inexpensive products that may look stylish but, upon further examination, are not up to par from a quality standpoint. There are certain showrooms at market that sell stylish, dirt-cheap products that are consistently jam-packed with retailers salivating at the opportunity to buy cheap goods and mark them up greatly to make them look like they don’t belong at the dollar store and to pull in a higher profit margin for themselves. I must confess that, in my early days of retailing, before I knew any better, I was one of those retailers ~ once. I never placed a reorder from those companies as the products consistently disappointed me once they arrived, either smelling like they were just released from the holds of a very musty ship or falling apart soon after they were put on the sales floor.

Fair trade is not something we can continue to be ignorant about.

If it’s too good to be true, there is a reason for that and we must wake up to that fact. We must start to question where products come from and what impact the production of those products has on the lives of other people and the planet. Once the demand for these dirt-cheap products {by both retailers and consumers} decreases, and the demand for more ethically produced products increases, market forces will begin to work to turn this unsustainable model around.

I am not advocating a radical, overnight shift in purchasing habits. I am saying, however, that we need to start to realize the power that our purchases have and use that power to make conscious choices whenever possible to choose the product that has been made ethically.

What do you think? Have you started to see more information about fair-trade products out there? Do you know any great products that are ethically made? Would you like to hear more about this topic in the future? Please leave a comment.

 

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