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International trade may seem like a remote concept when you’re choosing produce or grabbing a vanilla latte. But imagine for a moment a woman picking tea leaves from dawn to dusk on a Sri Lankan tea plantation, then carrying 30 pounds of tea a half mile to the weighing station—all for $1.63 a day. Or a banana farmer who receives a mere 1.5 cents per pound—less than it costs to grow the bananas. Now imagine that you can improve the lives of people in developing countries by simply buying Fair Trade products.
At its heart, fair trade helps alleviate poverty by creating opportunities for small farmers, laborers, and craftspeople who have been economically disadvantaged by the conventional trading system. It helps marginalized producers and workers move from a position of vulnerability to economic self-sufficiency by ensuring a fair price for their goods. It also promotes gender equality, safe and healthful working conditions, and environmental protections via sustainable farming practices.
Fair Trade Products Aren’t New
The movement began in the 1940s when U.S. churches started selling handicrafts made by European war refugees at community fairs. Modern day fair trade was born of those modest attempts when political activists in Europe created “Trade Not Aid” in the 1960s as an alternative to multinational corporations. Today, there are more than 1.7 million farmers and workers employed in more than 1,700 fair trade organizations in 73 countries around the world.
But the development of fair trade hasn’t been without controversy. Some conservative economic groups see it as a subsidy that impedes economic growth. Yet, while fair-trade commodities are a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of international trading, fair-trade sales are growing exponentially, showing a tenfold increase between 2004 and 2017. And last year, fair trade sales again shot up, as consumers turned their attention to more sustainable and ethical business practices in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
How to Get a Fair Deal
Some socially liberal groups, on the other hand, criticize fair trade for not adequately challenging the current trading system. Indeed, while fair trade tells consumers that some or all of the product they’re buying is fairly traded, it doesn’t guarantee fair trade throughout the supply chain—a T-shirt could be made with fair-trade cotton, but still sewn in a sweatshop, for example. Look for products that bear a label from Fair Trade USA. To qualify, a product must meet strict economic, social, and environmental criteria.