Buyer, Be Fair

Fair trade principles apply to more products

Sold at San Jose’s MatadorVino, Cantora Carmenere is a Fair Trade Certified Chilean red wine.

Photograph by Lane Johnson

“Fair trade.” You’ve seen the label on products ranging from wine to earrings. But what, exactly, do those two words mean?

Fair trade is a set of principles that strive to ensure that farmers and other producers get paid a fair price for their goods, that promote sustainable manufacturing and farming processes, and that encourage producers to use their profits to improve their communities.

Under fair trade practices, farmers and producers “are empowered within their communities,” says Stacy Geagen Wagner of Fair Trade USA in Oakland, a nonprofit agency that audits transactions between U.S. companies offering Fair Trade Certified products and the international suppliers from which they source.

“This is not the same thing as throwing money at a problem and hoping that the money fixes everything,” she says. “We call what we do ‘trade, not aid.’ ”

For those promoting the practices, “fair trade” is much more than a slogan on a package. It’s more like a cause, and the goal is to bring improvements to the lives of small, family farmers and producers of handcrafted goods in developing regions of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Pacific Island nations.

Coffee was one of the first goods to be sold under the “fair trade” umbrella, but more products are joining the crowd every year. In addition to coffee, shoppers can now purchase fair trade tea, chocolate, wine, spices, honey, jewelry, and even vodka made from quinoa farmed in Bolivia. The group Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International estimates that global retail sales of fair trade products in 2009 equaled about 3.4 billion euros, or about $4.6 billion, up 16 percent from a year earlier.

At MatadorVino in San Jose, owner Michael Hutchinson imports wine from Fair Trade Certified growers in Argentina and Chile.

“Without fair trade, the little guys will never have a chance against the big retailers,” he says. “They can’t compete with places that operate on huge economies of scale, and so they end up getting paid prices that are extremely low.”

Fair trade has improved the lives of impoverished people all over the world, Hutchinson says. “It’s enabled kids to go to school.  It’s brought people health care and clean water.”

Hutchinson is particularly proud to stock Cantora Carmenere, a red wine from one of the most economically depressed parts of Chile. The wine bears a label designed by a sixth-grade Chilean girl who received a computer as a result of a fair trade venture.

Fair trade differs from conventional trade in several ways, experts say. One is that conventional traders, generally speaking, believe that less restricted markets help alleviate problems such as poverty and social injustice, while fair traders think that the world cannot prosper if the producers of the goods—including those who are the poorest—are not able to live full, healthy lives. Thus, pursuing fair trade means guaranteeing producers a stable price for their wares.

An item with the Fair Trade Certified label is the end product of a long chain of events.  Wagner tells the story of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, which uses fair trade coffee as a key ingredient in its ice cream.

“The company wanted to include more fair trade ingredients in their ice cream. As a result, we now have Fair Trade Certified sugar farmers in Mexico supplying Ben & Jerry’s.” The Ben & Jerry’s experience encouraged Fair Trade USA to begin certifying ingredients, instead of only finished products, Wagner says.

Consumers can now purchase items such as clothing, jewelry, and toys that were produced using fair trade practices, too.

Monterey-based People Towels, for example, has had its 100 percent organic cotton, reusable personal hand towels on the market for more than a year. Co-founder Linda Lannon, whose website trumpets a “BYO towel” message, says the average person uses enough paper towels in one year to fill eight large garbage bags, and that People Towels can cut way down on paper towel waste.

“We don’t think about the importance of something like paper towels,” Lannon says.  “We don’t look at a paper towel and think, ‘That used to be a tree.’ ”

People Towels tried hard to find a U.S. manufacturer of 100 percent organic cotton terry cloth, Lannon says. Unable to find a suitable mill, “the next choice was fair trade, overseas,” she says. People Towels’ cloth comes from a Fair Trade Certified factory in India.

Lannon says, “The people are paid a living wage and the children go to school. The farmers who grow the cotton practice sustainable agriculture and don’t use pesticides.” The latter is notable because conventional cotton is one of the most pesticide-laden crops grown.

Pesticides were just one of the concerns that Joyce Kushner had when her son was born four years ago. As a new parent, Kushner wanted the best organic food for her child. This sensibility stayed with her when she started Coco-Zen, the organic, fair trade chocolate business she runs in Pacifica.

As she researched the chocolate business, Kushner found that child slave labor is often employed in the harvest of cocoa beans.

“I didn’t want any part of that,” she says. “All chocolate is hand-picked and imported, and most of it comes from West Africa, where child labor is common.” But fair trade practices prohibit child labor, and shun harmful agricultural chemicals as well. So Kushner uses only Fair Trade Certified chocolate in her creations, which include a variety of truffles, as well as chocolate “body treats” like chocolate sugar body polish and chocolate lip balm.

Kushner believes that most people would choose fair trade chocolate “if they knew about the issues. I think people want to do the right thing. They just need more information.”

More complete labeling on all products would help. But for now, shoppers who choose the fair trade label can feel good knowing they are helping to support farmers and manufacturers with a living wage and sustainable business practices.

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