Photo Credit: ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
When sitting down to write this blog, there were a number of things going through my mind as to how I should introduce fair trade. One could begin with an explication as to how fair trade works, when exactly it started, or why we need it in the first place. When all is said and done; however, we must begin by understanding what fair trade is. As touched upon in my previous post, fair trade appears to me as a motion, “of modern principles within the sphere of commerce.” This movement is not solely reliant upon the actual exchange of goods, but also on the vibrancy with which it is endowed. Within the domain of fair trade, there is an undeniably mystical happenstance that occurs when people from two distinct cultures mutually work to achieve the same end; as if the humanity of another is partially revealed through the goods made by their hands. What those of the fair trade community strive to accomplish is bring that experience to as many individuals as possible. For in making that the norm, we effectively re-humanize a mechanistic, almost subliminal, aspect of our daily experience. Herein lies the true beauty of the experience: whether social, political, or personal, change is intricately bound to the progression of fair trade.
An obstruction to this development is rooted in the human tendency for antipathy towards problems beyond one’s immediate concern. We do not care how items are sourced, produced, and distributed as long as they are cheap, abundant, and punctual. What many people fail to note is that even a marginal increase in end product price can reflect a considerable increase in living standard for the producer. The reality of this can be seen when one understands the state of Indian coffee growers and how exposed they are to market fluctuations. Almost 70% of the one million Indian coffee growers are small scale producers with over half being classed as poor (Karki, 436-437). This means they have relatively little capital to carry them through difficult sales periods. Following the coffee crisis of the early 2000’s, the extent to which they were vulnerable was displayed on a massive scale. Many farmers were thrown into poverty, starvation, and even driven to suicide over the mounting debt and falling profit. None of this would have needed to happen if there was an established network of fair trade producers and buyers. A 2016 study published in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Review found a “gain of 17 percent in income from opting to be certified” for fair trade selling practices (Karki, 455). Their overall findings, “establish that fair trade certification of coffee in India has played a positive role in improving the income of participating farmers” (Karki, 455). This simple example demonstrates how promoting fair trade in one area of a country can create a meaningful change for hundreds of thousands of people.
Those who oppose fair trade often do so out of an unfamiliarity with pressing issues in the global agenda. They believe there are more important matters to attend to than a foreign laborer in some no-name sweatshop. Yet place yourself in that workers position and the necessity for change, for a radical transformation in the status quo, becomes readily apparent. Multiply the average laborers experience across a billion people in dozens of countries and the scale of human exploitation is staggering. That fails to even broach the subject of what environmental defilement is accepted to achieve those ends.
Facing a reality such as this begins to drive home the sheer magnitude of the problem humanity is facing. It may seem as if a handful of people can make no difference, yet nothing could be further from the truth. For until the small minority begins to enact a reformation of our current commercial system, everything will remain the same. Supporting the dignified lifestyle of another human being is not something that requires a mutual tongue. This truth of society is a key to solving our seemingly irreducible trade dilemma. With millions of producers working via partners in the West, we are beginning to take the first steps in collectively improving our global community. We must simply remember to never stop moving forward.
Karki, Sabina Khatri, Pradyot Ranjan Jena, and Ulrike Grote. “Fair Trade Certification and Livelihoods: A Panel Data Analysis of Coffee-growing Households in India.” Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, vol. 45, no. 3, 2016, 436-458.