Fair Trade sounds like one of those fancy unnecessary terms tacked on to the end of someone’s high-end coffee order, “Can I have a grande hot soy half-caf caramel Fair Trade latte?” Fair Trade is actually pretty simple. All it means is that the farmers and workers who create the product are being fairly compensated. Since most of the modern, developed world has had labor laws protecting workers and minimum wages since around 1940, we assume that all countries have these laws and protect their workers. Many still do not. Employers pay their workers as little as possible, and since employment is scarce and some income is better than no income, many are forced to attempt to live on too little. These workers are forced to choose between food, healthcare, education, and family time. To meet their family’s basic needs, much is sacrificed, and workdays become unending.
Fair Trade products are approved by multiple federations and organizations, and ensure that all the workers involved in creating goods are fairly compensated and the wages they earn are livable. This allows workers access to the things they need to live on a day-to-day basis, including nutritious food, adequate healthcare, safe housing, the ability to educate themselves, and since they are compensated fairly, they only need to work a reasonable amount of hours, allowing them time with their families.
Many of these workers need their jobs so badly that they will endure years of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse from their employers, as they are too scared to go to their local authorities. Though American farmers may struggle financially, they do not live in fear of being violated with no possible opportunity for recourse. Fair Trade goods ensure that the producers are safe and not in danger of being violated. Though some might argue that this couldn’t possibly be widespread and commonplace, it is important to consider that the United States had to create laws to prevent it.
Though Fair Trade goods are readily available in most supermarkets across the United States, the variety of available goods fluctuates. Fair Trade coffee and chocolate are some of the more common products and has been growing in popularity since the popularity surge of Fair Trade goods in around 2002. Less common and more accessible in health centered stores are Fair Trade textiles, fruit, honey, teas, sugar, nuts, wine, and grains. Many people don’t notice that Fair Trade goods are in the aisle, and are just overlooked. It only takes reading the package to notice.
Even if a store or organization is not Fair Trade certified, they still likely carry Fair Trade goods. According to a 2013 report by SCS Global Services, 95% of all coffee sold by Starbucks is Fair Trade, and ethically sourced. According to Starbucks, they are working towards a goal of 100%. All of Dunkin Donuts’ espresso beans are also Fair Trade. These coffee beans are carried in most supermarkets nationwide. Another common product is Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Ice cream is a year round staple in many American households, and is available in grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience stores across the nation. These are international companies, putting their foot down and demanding that the people who make their product are treated fairly, and their basic human rights respected. If such large corporations can find time to bother with the ethics of products, consumers need to pay attention as well.
A common defense against Fair Trade goods is usually that the higher price is not practical and isn’t worth it. In actuality, Haagen Dazs ice cream is very similarly priced to Ben and Jerry’s, and not Fair Trade. For the quality of the product, an ethically and socially responsible product is very close in price to it’s less responsible counterpart. Regardless of this, this is not an economic issue, but an ethical one. Even if a Fair Trade product was significantly more expensive than the rest, it is more important to support the companies that are giving their workers a wage that they can achieve basic human necessities with, that they can support their family on. The purchasing power of the consumer shows retailers and manufacturers, what is demanded in a product. If there is a more significant shift toward these socially responsible goods, more socially responsible products will become available to fill that demand, then more farmers and workers will be making enough money to support themselves.
Others argue that supporting local goods is more important, and we should put our communities first. Locally made goods are inherently Fair Trade and it is common knowledge that their producers are able to survive on the wages they earn for their labor. It is more important to support Fair Trade certified products, as these are the products that will show producers that a high quality product that also supports the people who make it, is a priority. Once the rest of the world establishes more ethical labor laws, minimum wages, and protection against child labor, the shift back toward locally made goods can be made to support local economies. In the meantime, since many things are just not available as Fair Trade certified, local options are still a great alternative.
Originally written for Her Looking Glass.