Alert: I LOVE FAIR TRADE!!!
I believe my first exposure to Fair Trade was shopping with my grandmother at an early version of Ten Thousand Villages in Lincoln, making me a 40+ year enthusiast. I find myself now volunteering weekly at the current incarnation of that store in Lincoln's Haymarket, and chairing the Board that operates the non-profit business that runs the place I used to visit as a child. In the 40 years in between, I've shopped Fair Trade when I have traveled, in the various cities I have lived, and was the proprietor of a combination thrift and Fair Trade shop in Omaha. It's hard to say what my favorite thing about Fair Trade is because there are so many choices. I appreciate the workmanship that goes into items themselves, and the tastiness of the chocolate and coffee that are shade grown. I enjoy the stories of the artists from throughout the world, learning more about people I know I will not meet but with whom I now share a connection. I am glad to know that my consumer dollars are being spent in a way that works for systemic change, supporting communities and families while preserving artisan craftsmanship. I like supporting a locally-run shop that is keeping alive the notion of actual real-life in-person retail in a city's downtown. This is just a start.
So... let's talk a bit about how Fair Trade works. I'm hoping you will be as enthusiastic as I am.
The concept of Fair Trade has several components. When I describe it to visitors to Ten Thousand Villages in Lincoln, where I volunteer, this is how I explain it - Artisans outside the US are paid a living wage, up front, for their work. They work in a cooperative environment, meaning that ideas are shared and artisans work together not in a top-down system. A priority is placed on the environment, so many items are made from recycled, reused, and replenishable materials and foods like chocolate, coffee, nuts and tea are grown using organic farming methods that preserve old growth forests. As part of a commitment to justice, funds also go back into the communities where the artisans live for projects related to things like health and education, almost always with a specific emphasis in lifting up the most marginalized in the community.
Given the above, it can be hard to figure out which items are Fair Trade, which is where non-profit businesses like Ten Thousand Villages and certification organizations come in to play. Usually when you examine labeling for Fair Trade items you will find they either come from a non-profit like Ten Thousand Villages or Serrv that guarantees all products with their logo on it are certified, or you will find a specific certifying organization's logo, for example Fair Trade USA. Some certification organizations specialize in different types of products, for example they might specialize in examining textiles or chocolate/coffee while others certify a more broad range of products.
Something to think about as a consumer is which stage of the product has been certified as Fair Trade. The more complicated the construction of whatever you are purchasing, the more stages there are to certify. Clothing is an example of a consumer product that can be very difficult to verify as Fair Trade at all stages of production. Is it just from cloth to garment stage that is being certified? Or all the way back to the field in which the cotton is grown, the person mixing and applying any dyes, and anyone involved in shipping materials between any of the stages? Some certification organizations have chosen to limit the types of products they certify because of these many layers, some use language carefully to describe which parts of the artistic process have been certified, and others dive deep to research each stage of the process. Consumers with an interest in ethical purchasing can learn as they go and form their own opinions of this process by observing both label language and which certification organizations are working with which types of products.
Photo with Fair Trade sarongs, hand-dyed using batik on rayon fabric
The Faith-based community was an early and strong supporter of Fair Trade. It's a long story and I am not an expert witness, but we can thank Mennonites and their friends for the beginnings of both Ten Thousand Villages and Serrv. Recent waves of Fair Trade entrepreneurship have included leaders like Stacey Edgar, founder of Global Girlfriend. I think her story is fascinating, and I find the emergence of new Fair Trade companies is adding to the diversity of available products, even as it has bewildered those who try to keep track of certification methodologies. More artisan groups means more diversity, but also more work communicating about standards while figuring out how to meet demand without losing ground when it comes to ethics.
There's much more to share, so I've gathered a few favorite resources below.
For more information, including official definitions of Fair Trade and other resources, I find the World Fair Trade Organization website to be helpful.
Learn more about Fair Trade products and artisan groups while sharing with others by volunteering at a store. Find out more about Lincoln's Ten Thousand Villages shop here Lincoln Ten Thousand Villages
Fair Trade: A Beginner's Guide, by Jacqueline DeCarlo, was originally written in 2007 and remains helpful.
The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade, by David Ransom, 2001, is also helpful and includes chapters on specific types of Fair Trade items such as chocolate and coffee.
Overdressed,The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth Cline, 2012, is not about Fair Trade so much as about the opposite, and will break you of any habit you may have of purchasing cheap throw-away clothing.
United Methodists might be interested to know that UMCOR has partnerships with several Fair Trade companies so that a percentage of sales made by congregations benefit UMCOR. Find out more here: UMCOR and Fair Trade
Did you know you can fund raise with Fair Trade chocolate???? Total game changer!!
Find out more here Equal Exchange fundraising