Deep in the back of our minds, we have a subtle sense that whatever product we purchase has ramifications in the quality of life and land for someone somewhere in the world. We don’t always listen to the little voice that tells us those shoes made in China, or that gold mined from who-knows-where, may be making someone’s life and livelihood worse, not better.
Buying local certainly helps alleviate some of this concern. For instance, ETSY.com provides a great way to reach indy producers whose work you can feel good about supporting. Sites like this help ensure economic “biodiversity” on behalf of small producers and craftspeople that you can find in the US and internationally. However, not even all such indy producers can ensure that their materials or designs are fairly traded.
It takes major commitment from manufactures at any level, from artisans to corporate, to find ways of ensuring that the supplies they’ve purchased promote prosperity and sustainability in the community from which they’ve been sourced. Ben & Jerry’s brand, despite having been bought out by multinational conglomerate Unilever in 2000, has maintained it’s social integrity by committing to all fair-trade ingredients in the U.S. by 2013. This is no easy feat, but surely it is easier for a company that started and operated under the principles of social responsibility to enact such a decree than it would be for say, Gap which cannot assure its customers that the clothes they purchase aren’t ripped off the back of several women in Taiwan.
“Buying cheap materials abroad to sell products at home for a high profit margin is unethical and unfair. What may just be a few pennies to us makes huge differences abroad. We want people to understand that you can make a decent profit and still pay decent prices to your suppliers at the same time. So you make a little less profit, but you are not making obscene profits on the backs of the world’s poorest people: that is the essence of fair trade.” – Ben Cohen, Founder of Ben & Jerry’s , quote borrowed from TriplePundit.com
The FairTrade concept is a bridge to help us consider and choose products that have been made and purchased under conditions that are beneficial to the original producer or artisan. This is especially of concern regarding imported goods where labor laws may be lax or abused in the interest of profit-making (often times but not limited to Western corporate interests).
Going all fair-trade is not without its market-based risks. An Inc.com article reporting on B&J’s fairtrade maneuver reports that only about 1/3 of Americans even know what fair-trade is, versus about 50% of consumers worldwide. The Ben and Jerry team had to coax along those market-share-centric Unilever brand managers to give them the go on such a “radical” move–duh, holding companies = holding progress back companies. Anyhow, Ben and Jerry’s commitment will help to increase awareness about sourcing issues (edging Americans closer to the intelligence levels of the rest of humanity), and help reassure consumers who might have been on the fence about B&J dissing the indy scene for big Unilever dinero.
There are sometimes blips about fair trade issues that actually reach the “mass” popular consciousness. It sometimes makes popculture with folks like Kanye talking about blood diamonds. Yet, JayZ who spits in the same song has not been a vocal advocate about fair trade in the fashion industry or his clothing lines. Perhaps some causes are more popular than others. Ultimately, both artists are missing the big picture, if they haven’t made commitments to choose fair and sustainable alternatives to the rich’n’famous, Sir Buy A’Lot lifestyle.
FairTrade marketers or distributors work to help increase wage standards for marginalized producers by creating stronger markets for their products, usually in the West. While FairTrade marketing does not dismantle the reasons for poor labor conditions and prices, it can serve as a safety net. FairTrade programs that offer collaborative marketing and sales for fairly produced items can help improve livelihoods of those struggling to survive through their work.
Here are a couple of resources to get familiar with the world of FairTrade:
WorldofGood.Ebay.com is a very useful portal for all kinds of home and personal goods, including affordable clothing. It generates income for women producers across the globe.
The World Of Good Development Organization, a sister non-profit focused on improving the lives of low-income women in the developing world. (Organized by Priya Hajji the same founder of worldofgood.com, now owned by Ebay)
This is more of a learning resource: http://www.fairtraderesource.org/
For jewelry, diamonds, gold resources: http://www.fairjewelry.org/