by guest blogger Lisa Bronner, writer of the blog Going Green with a Bronner Mom
Fair Trade is a good thing. Authentic Fair Trade includes such principles as direct buying from growers; fair prices; benefit to communities where products are grown; no child labor, forced labor, or otherwise exploited labor; transparency and traceability; and environmental sustainability, among other key components.
And the very good news is that Fair Trade initiatives work. As concluded in a 2013 Harvard study, “Fair Trade does achieve many of its intended goals.”
However, as with any movement that captures consumers’ attention and their spending (over $5.7 billion were spent on Fair Trade purchases in 2014), unscrupulous manufacturers make a grab for some of these profits without engaging in authentic Fair Trade practices. This is fairwashing.
No one appreciates being taken for a fool. None of us want to find out that our well-meaning dollars went to support child or slave labor. We don’t mind paying more for more benefit but the last thing we want to discover is that our money is not benefiting whom we thought it was.
The key is to become savvy consumers who can navigate the shopping options instead of cynical consumers who stop buying Fair Trade altogether.
Here are three steps to increasing your Fair Trade savviness:
- Increase your education and awareness as a consumer.
Familiarize yourself with independent consumer education groups such as Fair World Project, which is a branch of the Organic Consumers Association. Not only is their website a wealth of information on authentic Fair Trade, current efforts to promote Fair Trade and exposing fairwashers, but it will also point you to the next steps: good Fair Trade certifiers and Fair Trade companies.
- Familiarize yourself with meaningful Fair Trade certifications.
As with any claim, there is a great difference between what an organization says about itself and what can be verified through independent third party certifiers. Part of fairwashing is the use of flimsy certifiers, whose certification seals look awfully reassuring but whose standards are full of gaps. Furthermore, there has been a surge in corporations who have internally certified their own products as Fair Trade, but without independent, external, third party confirmation, these claims are unverified.
Again, because of the lack of legal oversight, it is up to the consumer to learn which certifications are meaningful.
Based on the International Guide to Fair Trade Labels and the Fair World Project’s recommendations, the following are certifications found in the United States that are reputable and substantive:
- Fair for Life, which has become a part of Ecocert.
- Fairtrade America, the domestic branch of Fairtrade International (Not to be confused with Fair Trade USA).
- Small Producers Symbol, a program from Fair Trade International.
There are other programs doing excellent eco-social work that may not be specifically Fair Trade, but are still worth checking out. The Fair World Project has this excellent comparison of such groups.
- Create direct relationships with companies.
Don’t stop reading yet. You cannot throw down the gauntlet and say that you’re only going to buy fittings with these seals above, because there are many reasons why excellent companies do not seek certification. One reason a company may forgo certification is that the certification process is time consuming and expensive. Small manufacturers may not have the wherewithal to do it. They also may not feel like they need to because they have such good and open communication with their customers.
Companies that have transparency, that answer questions openly, that reveal their supply chains readily—check out what they say about themselves. Contact them and see how readily they answer questions. Research their reputation in the marketplace. If you encounter a run-around, or change of subject, or flat-out refusal to answer, that’s a red flag.
To sum up, bad labor practices are an issue that requires all consumers’ attention. Forced labor and child slavery in the cocoa industry of West Africa is widely documented, including in the 2014 documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate and Fortune magazine’s recent overview. The most nefarious problems with coffee production include forest and habitat destruction, child labor and unfair pay. The 2013 Bangladesh garment factory collapse made the conditions in the clothing industry impossible to ignore.
With awareness comes responsibility. As our world shrinks through communication and technology, we are no longer far removed from what’s happening on the other side of the world. We can easily see that our decisions and actions do not exist in a vacuum. What we do here, for good or for bad, has a reverberating impact through the global web. We cannot ignore this power.
As the 2013 Harvard report concludes, “Fair Trade, if it is implemented successfully, holds the possibility of being a market-based tool that can improve the welfare of consumers, the lives of producers, and the local environment.”
Lisa Bronner is the writer of the blog Going Green with a Bronner Mom, in connection with her family’s company, Dr. Bronner’s, makers of best-selling organic personal care products. Through her writing and public speaking, Lisa guides consumers through the quagmire of the organic marketplace and simplifies the process of green living at home. Embracing the concept of stewardship, she recognizes individuals’ ability to make a world of difference by how they live their every day. A stay-at-home mom to three, she believes that regularly gathering with them around the family dinner table is the single most important parenting act in her day.