Putting the “Fair” Back into Fair Trade

Growing up as a late ‘90s / early 2000s kid, I was well aware of the fact that almost every item I owned was stamped with the phrase “Made in China.” As years went on, I learned about outsourcing, as well as stories of horrible factory accidents and abysmal working conditions. It seems such a tragedy that the goods Americans buy every day might be the product of what is, in essence, modern-day slavery.

Recently, I learned about “fair trade” from an Internet acquaintance of mine. She is involved with Trades of Hope, a business that focuses on teaching working skills to impoverished women in order to break the cycle of poverty and to keep them from turning to prostitution to make a living. The basis of Trades of Hope is commerce rather than charity. Instead of giving these women a “handout,” they are given a chance to be productive. Fair trade, as a whole, revolves around the idea that workers worldwide should be earning a livable income. Their work, which might have previously been met with meager wages, is now providing them with enough money for food, education, shelter, water — basic things that every human should have.

But like any concept, fair trade has not played out to its full potential in reality. First, any producer (farmer, rancher, artisan, etc.) who wants to take part in “fair trade” must pay an initial certification fee equal to 2000 Euros, and then pay 500 more Euros every year after that in order to keep that certification. Even if a producer is able to get certified, the regulated fair trade price is the same for all countries. Each country’s inflation rate and wage disparity are not taken into account when paying the workers. Furthermore, any business in the U.S. can sell fair trade products but does not have to give any information on how much the producers are getting paid.

Because of these issues, businesses are opting to bypass Fair Trade altogether, such as Dillano’s Coffee of Sumner, WA.  They are not involved with any of the fair trade organizations, but rather establish a direct relationship with their coffee producers. Furthermore, they are very transparent about where their coffee is from, how much they paid for it, and how it was processed.

In an ideal world, fair trade is meant to amend the wrongs that U.S. consumerism has inflicted upon the producers of the world. In reality, however, it is in danger of doing the exact things it is trying to stop. Through the enforcement of some of the aforementioned regulations, producers are kept in poverty rather than given the opportunity to advance themselves in life. As a whole, fair trade needs to move away from big organizations. The idea behind fair trade is an understanding of what producers need on a personal level, and this cannot be accomplished with regulations, fees, and standardization. Businesses that have established direct relationships with their producers are on the right track; they see the producers as individuals rather than assets.

In no way am I saying that fair trade is to be done away with completely. I think, as 21st century Americans, it is good that we are becoming more and more aware of the wrongs our country has done to the world. As fair trade gains popularity, so does the idea that all humans are deserving of opportunity and livelihood regardless of their nationality.