The Pros and Cons of Fair Trade

When I first learned about fair trade, my initial reactions were those of admiration for an industry that sought to challenge the ways in which we consume, purchase, and create products. From the production line to the packaging to wages, it seemed fair trade had all of the answers. I’ve written about fair trade and the industry’s principles in many posts including a post for Mother’s Day. Although I still support and respect the principles, I am constantly taken back to my memories of one of my former supervisors who strongly disliked fair trade. When I asked her what the difference between fair trade and sustainable fashion was, she responded, “When you work more in the industry, you’ll see the difference and understand why fair trade may not be enough.” At the time, I didn’t quite realize the full meaning behind her statement. Why would she not support an industry that sets out to change how we manufacture and consume products?

Don’t get me wrong, fair trade definitely has its benefits. It seems strange that I would report some of the setbacks in the industry during October, a month traditionally set aside for fair trade. However, as I started doing more research and reflecting on my own experience with fair trade companies, I see there are two sides to the story. On a positive note, fair trade aims to reduce child labor, strives to provide employees with fair wages and benefits, and presents another opportunity for purchasing products that haven’t been mass produced in harmful working environments. We see plenty of pictures and read stories of success. Having interned for fair trade companies, I’ve seen how these companies strive to empower those who make their products. One company explained how they eliminate the middleman by paying producers half of what is owed up front and paying the other half after the products are made and shipped to the company. What this means is that if the products do not sell, the fair trade company will lose out on the profit, not the producers. There are also thorough inspections and training to make sure people are protected in the workplace.

This all sounds great, right? It does, but now that I’ve had more experience and reflected on a few thoughts from others, I also see the downsides of fair trade. One of these issues is the high cost of fair trade certification. As Meg Yarcia on Eco Warrior Princess points out, this causes more resources to go towards these certifications and not the producers. The Guardian takes this one step further and illustrates how fair trade tends to exclude the poorest countries and some fair trade supporters ignore the fact that some wealthier countries could benefit from fair trade to support some of the country’s poorer workers. The other factor that is troubling is the concept of approaching consumerism as a way to alleviate poverty. While this may seem like an effective tactic to reach consumers, what it does is guilt trip people into purchasing fair trade and making it seem as though it is the only “good” option out there. Encouraging people to make better shopping choices shouldn’t be about guilt, and can feed into a concept known as “poverty porn.” It also makes those who support endeavors like fair trade appear to be only for the wealthiest and elitist individuals who can afford a purely fair trade lifestyle.

My final reason for being slightly disenchanted by fair trade is the fact that many fair trade companies do not pay their interns. If you want equal pay and treatment of those who manufacture your products, wouldn’t you extend the same treatment to your interns? I tire of hearing the words, “We’re fair trade and a small company, so we can’t really offer our interns anything.” You mean you can’t even offer a monthly stipend to cover transportation costs to work? Many fair trade companies I’ve looked into or interned with are in expensive cities. It seems backward to not offer any kind of stipend, coverage, or even mentoring and expect interns to cover more expensive rent, transportation, and other necessities as they assist your organization with free labor. And, excluding people who are not local from internships so they don’t have to relocate is only a band-aid for a bigger issue. Some fair trade organizations offer an experience that is well worth the effort and want to make sure you have college credit for your internship, but are these offerings enough? Not acknowledging your interns in this manner could lead them to feel overlooked and taken advantage of. Yes, it’s a lot of pressure to make sure you are providing those who manufacture your products in developing countries with a living wage, ensure you have enough profit to pay your employees and remain solvent, and be able to sell your products at a higher price back in your home country to cover these costs, but that doesn’t mean you should leave your interns out of the mix.

Does all of this mean I’ve given up on fair trade completely? No. What it means is that I do support companies that are fair trade but also have other ethical practices. Leah of StyleWise indicates that we shouldn’t just evaluate a company for being fair trade certified, we should also support companies that are fair trade and have other attributes including using organic materials in products. Fair trade is a good start, but that doesn’t mean it’s the answer to everything. There are many other companies that are not fair trade, but they are honest about their ethical practices and standards and strive to give artisan communities a voice. The story of a company shouldn’t be just that it is a fair trade company. In Know Your Own Bone, Colleen Dilenschneider makes the same argument about cultural non-profit organizations. Many times, non-profit companies continually state their non-profit status, but should that be the only thing they focus on? As it turns out, most people aren’t as aware of or concerned about non-profit status. The same could be true for fair trade. Rather than solely claiming, “Buy our products! They’re fair trade!” the message should be, “We’re changing how the world sees and consumes products.”

Cover Image Credit: Pixabay

What are some pros and cons you’ve seen in the fair trade industry? How would you change the industry?

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