Friday, March 24, 2006

Fair Trade: Coming to a Market Near You?

This article was first published in the WRENzine, which is the journal of the Women's Rural Enterpreneurial Network in New Hampshire. WREN is doing a great job in their field, and I commend them.

Fair trade-coming to a market near you?

Recently we have been hearing about fair trade standards in business, and the idea warrants a close look.

The fair trade movement came about because of a consensus among concerned people that the traditional economic system of production and distribution was not economically or socially just and did not support local communities.

Fair trade is often associated with coffee and other products from the developing world where economic disparities are great and production methods are idiosyncratic, and where producers are oppressed by global economic forces that they do not understand.

People on the consuming side of the equation have asked themselves how their market choices can affect events half a world away, and the answer for some may be fair trade. More recently through the efforts of people like Michael Rozyne of Red Tomato, fair trade ideas are gaining ground and moving into the market for locally grown and produced products and services.

Fair trade asks the same questions in a social sense that the environmental movement has asked in the natural arena with some success: are there things that are worth preserving and promoting, despite the fact that they cost more money than if we ignored them? The environmental movement has answered the question well, and the public now generally agrees with the proposition. It may be time for the fair trade movement to make the same case.

Generally, fair trade takes into account several convergent themes.

First, fair trade starts with the idea that farmers, crafters, weavers and other small producers of goods and services should receive enough from their work to build sustainable communities, while preserving ecological and cultural values. In the case of farmers, this includes practicing sustainable agricultural methods. In the case of crafters, weavers and other small producers of goods and services, this notion includes the idea of sustainable local communities. Both of these themes are not well served by present day notions of laissez faire capitalism-the lowest price is often the wrong price for somebody. Third, buying and using fair trade products answers the need of concerned people to contribute to the welfare of less fortunate but equally worthy communities. Fourth, fair trade suggests that supporting local producers is environmentally sound, when one considers, for example, that the average distance an apple travels from the orchard to the table may be several thousand miles that has to be bankrolled by cheap petroleum.

However, fair trade cannot exist without some method of assuring that it is genuine, and that is answered by independent certification. The process is overseen by an independent certification organization, and the products that are certified enjoy market promotion and recognition that the production practices and methods are sustainable. People who buy fair trade products get to contribute to sustaining local communities in a meaningful way, no matter where they live.

As we progress from extractive and destructive production methods to sustainable systems is it reasonable to expect that the economic theory that evolved to justify those methods may give way to ideas more in line with emergent social theory? Stay tuned.


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