EcoMom Challenge #3: Shop Fair Trade (part I of III)

This week I am writing about EcoMom Challenge #3 as part of the EcoMom 10 Steps to Living Sustainably. Challenge #3 imparts us to: Shop Local, Fair Trade and Organic. I have a lot to say on each of these subjects, so I’ve in fact broken this element of the series into three parts. Today I will cover shopping Fair Trade.

What is Fair Trade?

From their own Website this is how the Fair Trade Federation explains their purpose:

Fair trade is a system of exchange that seeks to create greater equity and partnership in the international trading system by

  • Providing fair wages in the local context,
  • Supporting safe, healthy, and participatory workplaces,
  • Supplying financial and technical support to build capacity,
  • Ensuring environmental sustainability,
  • Respecting cultural identity,
  • Offering public accountability and transparency,
  • Building direct and long-term relationships, and
  • Educating consumers.

History: Fair Trade may be something that seems to have just popped onto the horizon as yet another politically correct catch phrase; however, the first Fair Trade shop Ten Thousand Villages in fact opened its doors in 1958! The International Fair Trade Association was founded in 1989 and the groups that ultimately formed into the Fair Trade Federation in 1994, began to meet and exchange business ideas in the 1970s. (Fair Trade Federation website).

Why Buy Fair Trade?

Buying Certified Fair Trade ensures that your purchases (whether they be coffee, food, clothing, jewelry or crafts)  were made in safe, sanitary, sustainable conditions and without the use of child labor. No other certification can make this guarantee when you buy imported goods. Note that they key here is certified Fair Trade. Many businesses are attempting to jump on this band wagon, even making their own Ethical Trading statements and such, but can they really be trusted?

How is Certified Fair Trade Better?

Fair Trade sounds great, but if you are like me you may wonder how the process is regulated and if it is really a label you can trust. Personally, I have great faith in the Fair Trade label, which I know to be a trustworthy and carefully regulated system. Why can I say this with confidence? Because, I have friends who run a little business that was recently Certified Fair Trade and I guarantee you that it is not an easy process!

In college I spent a semester in Madagascar and since that time I’ve managed to stay in contact with a few people I met in Madagascar and the tiny Malagasy community in my area.  Local Malagasy friends in fact  helped to start a women’s weaving cooperative about 5 years ago near the Ranomafana region of Madagascar. The Naturary co-op employees adult women who are expert weavers in making handbags, hats and other items from locally grown Raffia fibers. The Raffia Farmers and the weavers are all paid fair wages and work in safe and healthy conditions.

From its establishment Tropical Items Madagascar, which overseas the business has on principal operated from Fair Trade standards. The owners (Fanja & George) even gathered community members in Colorado to start a non profit (Hope for Madagascar) that carries out education and environmental projects in the area to further benefit the community.  A portion of all the proceeds earned by Tropical Items is donated to Hope for Madagascar. Projects both finished and in progress of the non-profit include building green schools, planting trees and gardens, and most recently working with Engineers without Borders to build a well.

In other words, Tropical Items Madagascar is a small, family run business that genuinely cares about their roots, respects the artisans, and gives back to the community (and the planet) in a big way. You’d think that with such a resume  that being certified Fair Trade would be an easy thing. And yet, Tropical Items had to complete a difficult application, spend the money to fly in inspectors, and all aspects of their business were scrutinized in order to become certified Fair Trade.

So, the next time you are trying to decide on a bag of Fair Trade Coffee Beans priced at $8.50 or a regular beans priced at $7.50 please know that the extra dollar is not just going to line some rich corporations pockets, but to in fact ensure that the adult (not child) laborers who brought you that coffee are paid fairly and work in healthy and safe conditions. And, that the business model behind the coffee likely also includes treading lightly on the planet and elements of sustainable development!

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