“Fair trade” – what a wonderful concept! Simply put, trading fairly means paying a decent, respectable (by local standards), price or living wage for someone’s time, talent or labor. “Fair trade” is a relatively recent concept, and an antidote to the common exploitative practice of paying rock-bottom slave wages to workers to minimize costs and maximize profits. “Fair trade” is, well, only fair, in a world of huge financial disparities.
“Fair trade”, as commonly practiced, however, does have its drawbacks. Most importantly, it is usually applied only to workers in communities in which the average standard of living is much lower than our own. Therefore, “fair trade” generally means that the goods or services so designated, are obtained from a great distance outside the US. Distance means importing, and importing means increasing the carbon footprint of the item or service purchased. In addition, purchasing from abroad means reducing the amount of badly-needed money circulating within our own local economies. If “fairly traded” goods are mainly non-local and they compete with locally-made goods, then local people must seek markets elsewhere, often in smaller economies. This is good news for importers and exporters, but bad news for the environment and for producers who must try to sell at high relative prices to maintain a decent standard of living in a more expensive economy.
I believe that the idea of “fair trade” should be expanded to include local producers. Artisans and servicepeople who live in our own economy must earn significantly more money than those in less “developed” economies, to maintain a decent standard of living. However, “locals” often cannot take advantage of economies of scale to reduce their costs. Besides, they sometimes would simply rather keep the business in the family and pay more attention to quality rather than quantity. Either way, they cannot help but be relatively expensive. The sad fact is that “local” therefore often cannot compete economically with mass-produced. Buyers conditioned to care about nothing but price need a reason to spend more on goods and services generated by working families within their own communities. “Fair trade” captures the goodness of the American spirit to help those who live at a disadvantage. I believe we would be doing our country a positive service, especially during this economic downturn, if we applied it to help those who must earn livings within our own expensive economy.
The next time you’re trying to decide whether to purchase “fair trade” or “local”, consider whether “local” may also be “fair”. For example, if you prefer organic honey to other sweeteners, ask yourself whether that honey really needs to be imported all the way from New Zealand, Viet Nam or Brazil. Are there organic farmers right on the outskirts of your town, looking for a few good city folk to buy their honey at the Saturday market? If you’re shopping for a quilted purse or a stylish scarf, is it necessary that the item be produced by women from an African village? Yes, the thought of women living in mud huts and drawing water from a well isn’t pretty, but what about the women entrepreneurs in our own towns who must make the rent every month, or supplement the dwindling family income, so that they and theirs do not go homeless and hungry? Your purchase of their handicraft may mean as much to them as a “fair trade” purchase would to the distant village woman, and the money you spend will help to prevent your own “village” from falling into economic disrepair.
In the end, we are all villagers. We may be Idahoans or New Yorkers, north enders or south siders, Americans or Swedes or Ukranians, but we all form groups and we all depend on others in our group for mutual support. Part of being supportive means patronizing our fellow villagers at living wages rather than automatically opening our wallets to help producers abroad. That having been said, I want to make it clear that I, personally, like to purchase “fair trade”, either when it is a product (such as chocolate) that cannot be produced locally, or when the alternative is mass-produced at typical sweatshop wages. When the alternative is locally produced and of good quality, and if it supports a business within my own ‘village’, the decision is not so clear-cut. Ultimately, there is no one right or easy answer to the question of “should we buy local, or fair trade?” However, I think that expanding the concept of fairness to own producers will help make some decisions a little easier, and help keep our own economy stronger in an ethical way.