A few days ago I was talking to a friend about shoes: I’d recently read that Nike owns Converse, which shocked my friend, an oblivious Converse-wearer. She had thought that by buying Converses she was withdrawing her support of the big shoemakers who are notorious for utilizing sweatshop labor. Our conversation turned to how these days it seems everything for sale comes from somewhere problematic, so much in fact that sometimes it feels like you have to either buy nothing or just ignore ethics altogether.
But that’s not true. Though market-led “free” trade encourages companies like Nike to contract production to sweatshops in Asia to minimize costs and maximize profits, there are practical alternatives. As concerns about the effects of such practices spread, conscientious consumers are increasingly turning to Fair Trade.
Fair Trade is a departure from the standard “free” trade of the past that is driven by profit alone. In contrast, Fair Trade focuses on establishing a sustainable, balanced relationship between buyer and seller and guarantees a living wage to participating farmers and artisans.
Take coffee, the most common Fair Trade good. Wholesale buyers of non-Fair Trade coffee want the cheapest beans they can find, regardless of how the coffee beans are grown. Because global competition has driven prices down in recent years, sometimes farmers have to sell their coffee for less money than they spend to produce it, driving them deeper into poverty. Fair Trade growers, on the other hand, are guaranteed a minimum price for their coffee as long as they meet certain production standards and can receive three-to-five times as much money for their labor. According to Transfair USA, an internationally recognized Fair Trade certifier, in the past five years small farmers have made an additional $34 million by selling Fair Trade coffee.
By compensating producers for operating responsibly, Fair Trade helps preserve small-scale, sustainable farming methods. Seller cooperatives and associations put individual producers in contact with organizations that market and sell the goods to North American and European audiences. Fair Trade items--such as handicrafts, furniture, clothes, jewelry, coffee, tea, and chocolate--can be found on the Internet or in specialty shops, like Global Exchange’s Online Store or Fair Trade stores in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Portland.
Fair Trade is more than just talk. By buying Fair Trade goods, consumers are actively supporting both an alternative, just system of exchange as well as the well-being of individuals involved in the growing and making of Fair Trade goods. And the results are real.
Tex Dworkin, the manager of the Global Exchange Fair Trade Online Store, recently returned from a month-long buying trip to Vietnam and Thailand where she met with local artisans and organizations that work with to get their goods from sometimes remote villages to the global market. “The lives of these people are greatly improved by the profits of the sale of these [Fair Trade] items,” she said. “That’s what it comes down to--their lives were a lot different before we started buying from them. That’s the truth.”
Getting a product into a Fair Trade store or website can drastically affect a town or village. According to Dworkin, entire communities in Guatemala are supported by the work of weavers’ cooperatives. In Peru, all of one village’s income comes from the sale of their handmade Incan chess sets in Global Exchange’s stores. “If someone buys 500 of something, that could be an entire village that’s changed forever,” she said.
The best part is that Fair Trade is growing rapidly. According to the 2003 Report on Fair Trade Trends, total sales went up by 44 percent from 2001 to 2002. Increasingly consumers in the Global North concerned about where their food and crafts come from are willing to pay a little more for Fair Trade goods so they will know where their money is going. In doing so, they are putting money right in the hands of small-scale producers rather than large unethical corporations.
This Saturday, May 14, is World Fair Trade Day. In 60 countries and hundreds of cities there will be events, rallies, seminars, fashion shows, and sales to help promote Fair Trade as a socially, economically, and environmentally responsible alternative to conventional “free” trade. It will be a chance for people to learn about the power we, as consumers, have to positively affect the lives of people who make the things we buy.
And mixed in with the food, shawls, paper, and jewelry that will be on display and for sale this weekend are even No Sweat Sneakers--the only 100-percent union-made sneakers in the world, guaranteed sweatshop-free, proving there really are alternatives to Nike.
Hunter Jackson is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and volunteer with Global Exchange.