Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Why Fair Trade is important

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine who considers himself very well-read, very much an activist, and very interested in environmental issues. The topic of Fair Trade came up, and he was at a loss. He had no idea what it was, and what's more, he did not seem particularly interested in finding out.

But there are a few reasons why I'm really passionate about Fair Trade and why I think it should become a regular part of our lives. For those of you who are not familiar with how it works, I urge you to visit the Fair Trade Canada website for more information. I won't go over all of it here, but I do want to outline why I think Fair Trade is so important.

It's about people
Let me create a scenario for you. Imagine you're a 9-year-old boy who suddenly finds himself stuck on a cocoa plantation. You're not getting paid for your work, but rather you're expected to do work that very few young boys can physically do. If you can't do what you're told, you're beaten senseless. You watch other boys around you go through the same, but never try to escape because the stories you've heard have made you scared for your life if you fail. What kind of thoughts would be going through your head at this point? For me, I think that I could largely sum it up in one question: "Why isn't anyone doing anything about this?" I would feel like I didn't matter, like everyone had forgotten about me, or that I was not as important as some other end (in this case, supplying chocolate to the Western world at a low price).

While this scenario is not necessarily "a true story", it's very similar to what happened to Aly Diabate in Ivory Coast. Of course people would not knowingly buy chocolate from a plantation that operates like the one where Aly ended up, but the operative word here is "knowingly". Of course companies are not going to put a big, bright sticker on the front of their packages that says "This product was made using slave labour" or "Twelve workers died from unsafe working conditions while making this product". Their goal is to make money, not scare off a consumer who usually is willing to assume that all is well unless he or she is told otherwise. At the end of the day, we need to be aware of where the things we buy come from, and we need to be the ones to take charge of our own awareness.

It's about the environment
A big part of Fair Trade certification is making sure that the product meets certain environmental standards. For starters, the sustainability of the company and its practices is looked at. Questions like "Will this company be able to survive and grow if it continues to operate this way?" are asked. Why does this matter? Because if the party in question is a coffee-growing cooperative, for instance, then part of the answer can tell us whether the farming practices are environmentally sustainable. Fair Trade coffee (and many other products) is organic, meaning the chemicals usually used on the crop are eliminated and don't contaminate the earth, water and air. Fair Trade coffee is also shade-grown. When a conventional coffee field is cleared, so is the natural habitat for many species of birds, and 95% of bird species is lost. That's huge! With organic, shade-grown coffee plantations, all sorts of bird species, insects and micro-organisms can find safe habitat and survive.

Cotton, one of the most useful crops in the world, is one of the most dangerous when not grown organically. While it covers only 3% of the cropland in the world, it is responsible for 25% of the pesticides sprayed on crops worldwide. Even more importantly, the second most common pesticide used on cotton crops, named Aldicarb, is so toxic that it can kill an adult human if even one drop is absorbed into the skin. If it can do that much harm to farm workers, imagine what can happen to other organisms when those chemicals get into water sources and contaminate the soil!

It's about ethics
When we buy a t-shirt for $5, stop to think where the $5 goes to. Usually, businesses have a mark-up of around 100%, meaning that if they buy something from the supplier for $5, they sell it for around $10. So let us imagine that this $5 t-shirt is typical in this way, and that the store bought it for $3. Of the $3, stop to think how much went to the guy who grew the cotton, or the person who wove the fabric, or the one who cut and sewed the fabric together to make the shirt. Because guess what? The middleman who sold it to the store in the first place also had to take a cut, and you can be sure that it was not 5 cents.

I am really fortunate to live in Canada. Here, when you need a full-time job, you apply everywhere and you're likely to get one. And when you do get one, there is only so little that they can pay you (even if it's at Tim Horton's), and even minimum wage is enough to survive if you're frugal. If you can't survive, you get another job. But in many countries, including the ones where that t-shirt is likely to have been made, getting a job is not so easy, and sometimes you have to take what you can get. So in Bangladesh, for instance, working a 14-hour day for 50 taka (around 75 cents) is not unusual, especially for women. This means they would be making around $23 USD per month. The living wage (meaning the amount needed daily to meet basic needs like food and shelter) in Bangladesh is around 4,800 taka, or $64 USD, per month. 

It's about doing it differently
Fair Trade approaches things not from a charitable point of view, but from the perspective of how things should already be happening. Rather than having developing countries produce all of our products at low prices, driving them into poverty, and then sending foreign aid, why in the world should these people not simply be given the chance to earn their own living in the first place? Nobody wants a hand-out if they can help it, but the dignity of being able to provide for yourself and your family is a basic right that Fair Trade encourages. It's about making sure that the people who make the things we buy are getting paid a living wage, working in safe conditions, and getting the resources they need to build sustainable operations. It's the way trade should be done in the first place.

So what does Fair Trade mean, in a nutshell?
- Environmental considerations
- Opportunities for producers in developing countries
- Transparency
- Gender equity
- No sweatshops!

To be sure a product is actually Fair Trade (because some companies make the claim without the certification), please look for one of the symbols below on your products of choice. They are the official symbols of the organization that certifies Fair Trade products in Canada (Fair Trade Canada). Their website also has a very handy "Fair Trade Finder" where you can see where Fair Trade products are sold near you.

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