The Case for Fair Trade
Let's take a step back to 2017. I was in Dublin, Ireland interning at a non-profit over the summer. It was there that my Fair Trade journey began.
After hearing about Fair Trade through the organization, I started doing some digging on my own. What was this elusive term that represented environmental and social justice? As the summer progressed, I became increasingly engrossed in the meaning of Fair Trade and how I could get involved. Returning to the University of Kentucky (UKY) that fall, I started the UKY Fair Trade Campaign. Since then, I served as the President of the campaign, travelled abroad to examine Fair Trade practices in person, and advocated for and secured the passage of a Fair Trade Resolution for the University of Kentucky, solidifying it (as of now) the largest university in the Southeastern United States to achieve a Fair Trade Campaigns Designation. But that's all a very long story. Let's talk about why I feel that Fair Trade is a movement worth getting behind.
So what is Fair Trade?
Fair Trade is designed to create an equitable global trade model - to eliminate the middlemen to ensure that the people producing the everyday products we purchase are being paid fairly and treated ethically. Fair Trade products generally have a small premium on the price tag that goes directly back to farmers and workers. Fair Trade supports and educates producers in developing sustainable agricultural practices and provides opportunities for them to lift up their community and increase environmental protections. You may be surprised how many products you can find with one of the common Fair Trade logos below. People often think Fair Trade = coffee, however Fair Trade products exist in virtually every category of products we purchase - clothes, tea, sugar, fruit, sporting equipment, home goods, and of course, candy.
How does Fair Trade relate to sustainability?
Fair Trade seeks to create a passion for global citizenship and a focus on sustainable, ethical consumption. Small farming operations have relatively small emissions footprints, yet are often disproportionately impacted by climate change. For producers, climate change is not a vague threat in the future. It is a real, everyday struggle to adapt to the changing environment and extreme weather conditions. Fair Trade alone cannot solve climate change, but producers who are certified through one of the above certifications commit to practices that protect and preserve the environment. Purchasing Fair Trade products supports sustainable projects around the world while promoting equitable treatment for the people who create the products we use and love every day.
What does Fair Trade look like up close?
As part of my research for the UKY Fair Trade Campaign, I wanted to investigate Fair Trade practices in person to better understand the movement and see for myself how Fair Trade impacts the farmers and environment I was hoping to support. In August 2018, a friend and I were grateful to receive a grant through the UKY Food Connection to travel around Costa Rica via plane, bus, boat, and our own feet examining Fair Trade practices in action.
Costa Rica was challenging, eye-opening, and inspiring to say the least. We travelled across the country to both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, tasted some incredible coffee and fruit, and only got stuck on the side of a mountain once!
At CoupeTarrazu, the largest Fair Trade cooperative in the country, we saw the power in working together to achieve common goals. The cooperative works with over 5,000 farmers across the San Marcos region, and as a result of their scale, is able to send 75% of the profits directly to the farmers, with the other 25% invested into the community's gas station, agricultural store, supermarket, auto shop, trainings for farmers, financing, bank services, and advising services. The mountains of San Marcos are dotted with coffee and banana plants, and if you look closely, carefully plotted lines of red bushes, denoting the property lines between farmers' lands. I was startled that there were not fences between properties to protect each producer's assets, but our guide, Felix, explained why:
“We don’t believe much in lines – religion, politics, power, borders should not be a reason to prevent people from having better lives.”
At Cafe de Monteverde, we discovered the inner workings of a biodynamic farm, where each plant, animal, and piece of equipment serves more than one purpose. Guillermo, a third generation coffee farmer, urged us to remember that, “It is not about how much we can produce; it is about how much we consume”. Here he stands in front of the biodigester at the farm that collects methane from animal waste to use for crop growth and cooking. For these farmers, Fair Trade and sustainability are deeply interconnected. One farmer described it this way: "We grow coffee, but beyond that is doing it in a sustainable way so we can drink the water from the river, we can eat a fruit fresh off a tree, we have a banana when we want. That is what we aim for.”
But what about buying local?
When I speak about Fair Trade, I am often confronted with a defensive argument that we should exclusively be buying locally. Guess what - you can buy locally and still support Fair Trade! Reducing the miles your food travels is a wonderful step toward decreasing your footprint, but last time I checked, coffee, bananas, and many other staples items don't grow in most of our hometowns and cities in the US. Buy what you can from a local farmer's market, and then ensure that the products you can't find locally are coming from ethical, sustainable sources. Some farms, producers, and fisheries in the United States have started becoming certified through Fair Trade organizations in recent years. Do your research and don't be afraid to ask questions. Need help getting started? Check out our Green Gear Guide for Fair Trade Products.
"The goal is to create a rich culture – and not in the way of money. Selling more doesn’t change the social structure. Cooperatives provide the opportunity to change that structure."
Consider the hands that hold your food, the years spent cultivating plants that make up your clothes, the care put into lifting communities through sustainable practices.
Consider Fair Trade.
**Go Way Beyond is not affiliated with any of the organizations above. The information and opinions in this post are not representative of these organizations.