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Fair Trade Goods From Danger Zones: Is the Label Necessary?

Leon Kaye | Monday May 10th, 2010 | 0 Comments

Fair Trade certification has been a path for moving goods from developing countries to wealthier consumers in the developed world, whether they are buying coffee, clothing, or shea butter.  For those of us who never had the opportunity to enter the Peace Corps, buying a fair trade product makes us feel better about products from Africa, Asia, or Latin America.  In many cases, those purchases make a difference in the country from which such products are imported.  Now the next wave of Fair Trade products are from conflict zones.  According to the World Bank, about one-third of the world’s people living under the poverty line are from “fragile countries.”  Giving these people an opportunity to raise and sell local delicacies could be a path to economic stability and even wealth.

This sentiment is hardly new.  Armenian-Americans have been quietly shopping for goods from failing states in their local supermarkets for years.  After independence from a disintegrating USSR in 1991, Armenia found itself at war with Azerbaijan.  Its northern border is shared with an unstable Georgia, and to the west, lies an old nemesis, Turkey, sharing a border that only recently has witnessed talks discussing its opening in order to allow the free flow of goods and people.  To the south?  Armenia’s most stable trading partner…Iran.  So where can its goods grown in its fertile soil go?

To Los Angeles, where 250,000 Armenian-Americans live.  Market aisles from Hollywood to Glendale to Pasadena are full of products that you either cannot find elsewhere or are even superior to those from local farms.  And they are not just from Armenia:  Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian goods are abundant.  Not all of these products have gone through the “fair trade” certification process–many of these firms are small operations, or their owners are just unaware of such a label’s benefits.  But the products’ sales support small businesses and exporters in Armenia and southern California.  These goods may not always sport a trendy feel-good “fair trade” label, but their purchase allows the Diaspora to help their homeland financially.

Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan ended years ago, but the country is still in a precarious financial and diplomatic position.  Now there is growing interest in procuring goods from countries on the brink of failure that have offered products with a long history.  Tropical Wholefoods, with a legacy of exporting dried fruits from Uganda, is now working to source raisins from Afghanistan.  The Brits are thrilled, as decades of scones loaded with Afghan raisins will once again hit the shelves of bakeries and restaurants.  As any connoisseur of dried fruits, nuts, and spices would know, the best of the best come from the Middle East and Central Asia, and if a decent supply chain of agricultural goods can make it from Afghanistan’s soil, more of its people can see economic opportunity from a commodity other than opium, which has done nothing for the country but fester more corruption.

But with buying goods from conflict zones come risks: danger to farmers and vendors, unscrupulous exporters, erratic customs and border control, and most worrisome, time, as buyers of Palestinian olive oil have learned.  As is the case with organic produce, the process for gaining such certification involves red tape and hassle.  So if you want to help a country in need, view the purchase of products from these troubled faraway lands as you would when buying produce from your local CSA vendor:  like organic, “fair trade” is a label that does not always guarantee that the goods are wholesome.  Likewise, a missing “Certified Fair Trade” stamp does not mean the goods you are buying are harmful or have dubious origins.  Of course we want to buy goods from troubled, conflicted countries—but hemming and hawing over whether they have the fair trade label is not worth the angst, as decimated Palestinian olive groves have shown.


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