When the fair trade movement first gained real marketing attention in the early 2000s, many conscientious minded individuals were thrilled. Finally! A way to impact poverty while supporting the dignity of work, rather than perpetuating a cycle of charity.
I bought in all the way myself. No more M&Ms or Hershey’s bars for Halloween or Easter. My clothing was either purchased second hand or from pricey online retailers, I scheduled meetings across town in pursuit of ethically sourced coffee instead of enjoying my normal neighborhood cup, all because of a tiny black and white label.
Thankfully, competition within the fair trade market itself has ensured that coffee (thankfully) has again become valued for it’s quality, not only the price paid to the farmer. Fairly-traded clothing is (almost) affordable and actually form-fitting, and even Hershey’s has promised to remove child-labor from its cocoa supply...sometime.
Despite these gains in the quality and popularity of fair trade over the past decade, critics from the economic world are questioning the validity of the movement. Similar to many complex issues, it can be tempting to consider throwing the baby out with the bathwater after hearing an articulate argument. This is because we humans have a tendency to want to categorize everything into good/bad, right/wrong, black/white, or should/shouldn’t. Our brain actually rewards us when we are able to “figure” something out and appropriate a judgment into its proper place. But when we are talking trade issues, we are going to have to become a bit more comfortable with gray areas, because snap judgments will result in an incomplete picture.
In this article, I have collected some of the most valid critiques of the Fair Trade movement, as well as some equally ‘pro’ arguments, in hopes that consumers will continue to engage the important issue of “where my stuff comes from.”
Below are 3 reasons some think Fair Trade doesn’t work:
The argument FOR ethical or direct trade:
On a macro scale, I do not believe Fair Trade (for all it’s high ideals) is going to be the most effective mechanism to move the economic needle within developing nations. However trade in general is arguably one of the factors that will. On a micro-scale, however, fair trade principles are actually enabling thousands of individuals to leave poverty and work with dignity as they partner with grassroots initiatives.
As an illustration, I received a letter yesterday from Hope Jewellery company, employing 23 women outside of Lima, Peru. The letter was thanking me for a large order placed last year which allowed them to live well, afford healthcare, and send their children to school, and also enabled 2 of the women to become debt free as a result.
The women of Hope Jewelry operate a top-notch enterprise, earn a fair wage, and exhibit internationally in trade-shows in the US and Europe. Their product is priced reasonably and is extremely on trend and affordable. Essentially, their line is capable of competing within the free market, yet they would not have reached that market had they not been connected and cultivated by UK designer, Laura Cave, co-founder of Just Trade, a BAFTS certified business.
For these 23 women, the opportunity to be brought to market by an ethical company ensures that they are paid fairly, have safe working conditions and reach the buyers they need to succeed. Fair Trade has made the difference for them between a life of lack versus a life of enough. It may not have the power to transform the entirety of Peru’s economy, but it has uplifted the lives of these 23, along with the families for whom they provide.
In closing, I would argue that if ‘trade not aid’ is what is most needed to build economies and eradicate poverty, then why not make it fair? We as consumers have a responsibility to hold the companies we buy from responsible for their labor practices so as to accomplish the most good to the most people, in any way we can - including our shopping, travel, dining, and building practices. Next time you purchase a fair trade, direct trade, handmade, local, ethically-sourced product, feel good about it. You may not have changed the world, but you just might have changed a life.
“We need jobs, and we need a way to put our children in school.” This statement, spoken by internally displaced Ugandans, resonated with Yobel co-Founder, Sarah Ray.
If these strong, resilient, hardworking, motivated individuals had access to dignified work, they would be able to provide many things for themselves that charity would seek to do for them. Things like school fees, clean water, nutritious foods, secure housing, clothing, and transportation. Jobs sounded like a good way forward.
As consumers, we have power and we must use it wisely. United States citizens will purportedly spend $1 trillion this year on Christmas gifts. That is $1 trillion votes cast for the kind of world we want to live in. Let’s vote together for a world that prioritizes People and Planet so we ALL Profit!