Fair Trade: It’s Tough to be an Ethical Consumer

No one ever said green would be cheap or easy. The sad truth of the matter is the average consumer’s commitment to greenness is mostly tied paradoxically and perversely to the cost of a gallon of gas.

So when pundits across the pond wonder whether Fair Trade is still a useful eco-brand, the question answers itself and then generates a new one: Yes; and what else is there, pray tell?

Since 1999, the non-profit Fair Trade Resource Network’s mission has been to build a fair and sustainable world by gathering, developing, and disseminating educational resources about Fair Trade. FTRN is the only non-profit organization on the planet focused exclusively on Fair Trade education, helping people to better understand the impact of their buying decisions.

There’s some evidence that in the US at least, Fair Trade is growing in relevance and influence.

A record 100,000 people across the US and Canada are expected to participate in hundreds of events over the next two weeks to mark World Fair Trade Day on May 14, 2011.

Cities, towns, churches, groups and individuals plan events to highlight the social, economic, and environmental benefits of buying Fair Trade. The events include Fair Trade festivals, Fair Trade coffee breaks, webinars and Fair Trade artisan tours.

Here’s more information about World Fair Trade Day events in your area, and its benefits.

Despite Fair Trade’s 13-year history many Americans are unaware how many day-to-day items are produced in abusive labor conditions that include sweatshops and child labor. These items include clothing, furniture, and foods such as coffee, chocolate, and sugar. The Fair Trade system helps producers and suppliers earn a living wage and take action to protect the environment. It also helps empower individuals and communities, support women’s and children’s rights, promote dignity and respect, and connect developing nations with developed nations and markets.

That’s the sustainable and ethical essence of the triple bottom line.

Paul Rice, CEO of Fair Trade USA, says the Fair Trade retail sales market last year in the US was $1.4 billion. In Europe, which started its fair trade market 30 years ago, sales reached $3 billion.

In the vast scheme of retail things those are paltry numbers; is this Fair Trade’s fault? In a world where a good consumer is the one that finds the cheapest deal or the deepest discount, the ethical consumer faces difficult, expensive and often paradoxical choices. For Fair Trade, every little bit helps; every small step taken is a small victory.


writer, editor, reader and general good (ok mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by

3 responses

  1. Hi Bill,
    Thank you for your great poston Fair Trade. I would like to share important additional information about the Fair Trade movement and marketplace, regarding other fair trade labeling initiatives. Fair Trade USA is just one reputable fair trade labeling initiative in the marketplace that focuses on certifying single ingredients and products, instead of companies and brands dedicated to fair trade throughout their entire product line. While it is commendable for an otherwise non-fair trade company to offer one or few fair trade products, fair trade consumers prefer to support brands and companies that are dedicated to fair trade throughout their corporate DNA.
    IMO’s Fair For Life Fairtrade certification (www.fairforlife.net) is a new fair trade labeling initiative in the marketplace that focuses on entire companies and all their major supply chains. Mission-driven fair trade companies such as Dr. Bronner’s, Equal Exchange, Theo Chocolate and Guayaki are all certified fair trade through IMO’s Fair For Life certification program. Many more dedicated fair trade companies are moving to the IMO FFL certification so they can distinguish themselves as fully dedicated brands rather than just offering a few fair trade products. IMO’s FFL certification requires a company-wide audit of all products and supply chains in order to earn the FFL seal on labels, which ensures over 95% of their products by sales volume have a majority of Fairtrade content.

    The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) (www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org) is another important new certification that focuses on domestic fair trade production. Currently the international fair trade system focuses on marginalized communities in underdeveloped countries, but American farmers and farmworkers also face similar issues of volatile pricing and unfair wages and working conditions. We need to bring fair trade criteria home, as its not enough to treat earthworms with respect via organic certificaiton, we have to think about impoverished farmworkers in the United States too.

    Fair trade is growing rapidly and there is a fair amount of consumer confusion. The mission of the Fair World Project, http://www.fairworldproject.org, a fair trade consumer advocacy campaign of the Organic Consumer Association, is to educate consumers about fair trade and different certification systems to enable informed responsible purchases when shopping.

    Ryan Zinn
    Fair World Project

  2. So, what if the solution is using the power of the sale to do good? Agreed that customers are looking for a deal these days, and this can go against principles of Fair Trade. Yet, there are many companies that are using the power of the sale to do good. They work on a lower commission than big deal sites and they work very closely to the brands to make sure this deal is good for their business. Even allowing companies to sell at wholesale and do a deal. It is radical, yet it works. Companies are able to market their products and overcome the price hesitation that many can feel when converting over to fair trade and green products…

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