Hot topic: Fair trade

"As consumers, our power is in our dollar. People need to understand that, when they buy a product, they're unconsciously endorsing a way of doing business."
-Nina Smith, executive director, RUGMARK


A few months ago, I found myself here for a Halloween extravaganza. In the midst of the evening's festivities, the impossible happened--I WON something! This rare feat had not happened since I was a frizzy-haired fourth grader who walked away from the spelling bee a braces-wearing, style-lacking winner of a gift certificate that resulted in my first cassette tape.

After erupting into a completely unnecessary squeal of delight, I walked away with another gift card--this time, to a place called Ten Thousand Villages. As my excitement subsided, my curiosity peaked. I began asking around and discovered this store is actually one of the world's oldest and largest fair trade organizations.

What exactly does fair trade mean? I wasn't too familiar with the term myself, but I did know that in a nutshell, fair trade "enables artisans to earn a fair wage and provides the opportunity for a better quality of life" (taken directly from here).

Last weekend, I set off for Ten Thousand Villages to learn more...after all, I had a gift card to spend.

I perused the store and was pleasantly surprised. Funky jewelry, trendy scarves, global home decor items...like a mini, local Pier One. Except there was one important difference--Ten Thousand Villages is fair trade certified.

After milling about the store, I picked up a pair of earrings that were calling my name and headed to the check out line.

While distracted by a table full of beautiful journals, my eyes fell on a booklet titled "The Conscious Consumer: Promoting Economic Justice Through Fair Trade," which I decided to add to my collection (because in case you forgot, I WON a GIFT CARD!).

Okay, confession--while I was certainly not well versed in the details of fair trade, I had enough background to know that this topic was one that could easily bring about feelings of discomfort, guilt and even frustration.

I mean, I knew along with just about everyone that many American stores sell products made in sweat shops. In fact, several large corporations have found themselves in the middle of public relations nightmares due to their support of such inhumane production practices (think Wal-Mart, Nike, Disney, and Kathie Lee Gifford). And the thought of me perpetuating such a cycle of injustice in the name of saving a few bucks was a bit disconcerting to say the least.

My vague awareness was enough to keep me from buying my stand-by Nike running shoes last year but beyond that, it did very little. Sure, I felt bad. And when I saw videos or news reports, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of remorse.

But quickly following such feelings came such defensive thoughts as "Okay, fine. This is a horrible thing. Call me just another materialistic American consumer. But how am I supposed to know a better alternative? How do I know that New Balance is any better than Nike, or if J. Crew is more ethical than the Gap? Until I'm presented with a convenient alternative, I can hardly be expected to make any changes...right?"

And you know what? I still don't have all the answers. But I'm learning more and more.

And I do know that people--living, breathing, laughing, crying, dreaming, loving, feeling, failing, flesh-and-blood people--are being broken in every possible way in order to produce these material things that I will likely throw away within the year.

And that this may be an overwhelming reality, but it is, in fact, a reality.

And that someday, when I have a frizzy-haired fourth grader, I do not want to have to explain to her that the shirt she wants at Wal-Mart was made by a penniless child her age living in squalor across the sea.

And that unless I start to care, and start to make changes--however small--nothing will change.

I share this with you knowing that those same feelings of discomfort, guilt and frustration will follow. And I think, to some degree, that is okay.

But don't let it stop at a feeling. Don't compartmentalize this idea into a social injustice that we are powerless to control. Or worse, trick yourself into thinking that "these people" are any less human than you or me and let such a message fall by the wayside.

So, okay, what can we do then?

First, we can learn. Want to compare stores for the most socially responsible brand of clothing/food/athletic wear/coffee/etc? Check out this site. Read about some of the "Most Wanted" corporate human rights violators here. Or hey, maybe just Google fair trade and see what you can dig up.

Second, spend wisely. It is no secret that the economy is less than ideal right now and that saving money is at the forefront of everyone's mind. However, while we may struggle to find the money for that plane ticket or that snazzy hi-tech gadget or that little black dress we've been eyeing, we will continue buying things like grocieries. And shampoo. And coffee (Lord knows, I will buy coffee!).

So why not spend a few more bucks on the "necessities" of life on something fair trade certified? You will buy it anyway--might as well make it something you can use with a clear conscience. Choose a store ranked high by the above sites...or better yet, pick one openly fair trade certified, such as here, here or of course, here.

Finally, start talking. Share what you're learning. Ask questions. Disagree. Just keep the conversation going. Let me know what you're thinking by posting any comments here.

Happy new year, friends. Here's to spending wisely...


Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Sara. Convicting for sure. However, my passion for justice often bumps up against my passion for frugality. Those "everyday low prices" are tempting.

Rebecca said...

Thanks for provoking my thoughts, friend. Now, in just a few hours, you can provoke my laughter by participating in Flashback Friday. Go!

As for fair trade...I'll work on my research. Unfortunately I, too, am a frugal queen. I'm hoping I find out that Walgreens is rated excellently on those web sites.

Sara said...

I totally hear both of you--I am a sucker for bargains. Recently I've just been thinking a lot more about the cost of my savings...especially when it comes to clothes. As far as groceries, I want to know more about Aldi because so far they are my fave--I know they offer really good benefits to their employees AND they offer really cheap prices to their consumers. (but I will admit that I steer clear of their meats)

Anonymous said...

i wish there were more local fair-trade certified stores. for now, i figure it's good to shop local opposed to big box and to take advantage of thrift stores and estate sales, etc. thanks for sharing sara! -vanessa

Anonymous said...

When you quoted the website, you said "Free Trade". There is a huge difference between "Free" and "Fair" and people on one side are completely opposed to the other side. "Fair" is the underdog because the world is so "Free"-oriented, and "Free" would have to become non-existent or change dramatically for "Fair" to have a bigger slice of the global economic pie.

And like Dean, the low prices of Wally World and its clones like Target have broken my integrity on the subject. It's like still eating fast food after watching "Supersize Me".

Sara said...

...and that, my friend, is a typo.

Thanks for catching it.

And I agree that it is overwhelming. And I most certainly still eat french fries...

But I still think there are little changes everyone can make--and that something is better than nothing.

Thanks for your thoughts!