Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Freedom through Fair Trade

I hope it is not too entirely predictable that I use the 4th of July for some musings on independence.

Lots of times Fair Trade is seen in opposition to "Free Trade" and that can cause consternation, especially in places like the United States, where we are really, understandably, very invested in our freedoms. On days like today when we are reminded of our liberties, our privileged position, the strengthes and weaknesses of our government, it seems a little like treason to be against something that is "free."

My thinking on this has been helped a lot by two Fair Trade buddies of mine, Kimberly Grimes and Marco Hernandez of Made by Hand Cooperative in Delaware. Kimberly is fond of saying that the "freedom" of Free Trade is wrapped in the free passes multinational businesses get FROM legislation designed to protect people, such as health and safety regulations, concern for the rights of workers, etc. She has got a point here, and the Trade Justice Movement is a great resource for budding activists interested in making businesses more accountable to citizens.

Another way of looking at the freedom piece comes from Marco. He says, “You deserve to have an alternative. You have the right to choices.” This idea that we have a right to a range of consumer options reasonates a lot for me. I try to live a simple life and to do that I need counterpoints to the big box retailers or to companies that are concerned only with profit. Like you, I make decisions each and every day about how to spend money for the goods and services that clothe us, inform us, transport and nourish us. We need options so we can choose businesses that prioritize the concerns of disadvantaged producers and of conscious consumers.

Of course, there is always the final notion that the decision to exercise judgment and use the influence of consumer dollars is a way to cast an economic ballot, another “freedom” of capitalism. So, this Independence Day we can align ourselves with a trade system that doesn't subvert the notion of freedom, that gives us a range of options to choose from, and provides us a daily way to be engaged citizen consumers.

Happy 4th of July!


  1. Anonymous3:15 AM

    I suppose fair trade offers an additional choice, but if we all practiced fair trade we'd only have the freedom to buy overpriced goods. Free trade is about getting rid of barriers that prevent competition and deny us the freedom to have all these choices. If all I can buy is the shoddily produced local good because the high quality import is banned, am I really getting more choices? I want to buy what makes me happiest and don't want anybody putting a barrier in the way. That's free trade and that's freedom.

  2. Thanks for the comment, although I wish you hadn't stayed anonymous! Obviously you have your criterion: buy whatever makes you happy. This kind of libertarian ideal is certainly legitimate, just not the way I want to live my life. I don't want to buy human beings, even if they could do great work for me. I don't want to buy elicit drugs, even they fuel violence in the inner city and destruction in the suburbs. And, in the more mundane areas of life, I don't want to buy things through a system that keeps people poor.

  3. Anonymous10:15 AM

    I hope the anonymous commentor will be spurred to investigate a bit more about free trade policies. Maybe when it becomes personal you will understand that theoretically it may sound good but in practice the nightmare begins. How about if a multinational company wants to build a toxic waste dump in your backyard and due to Free Trade laws, you, your community, your governor and even your president have the "choice" to accept it or if they oppose it, they must pay the company several billion dollars that the company claims they would have made in profits in the future. If you think that is impossible, just ask the people of California who had to do that (settlement = billions of dollars) to prohibit MBTE additive in gasoline that was causing Californians to die of cancer. And a correction to your comment that Fair Trade means overpriced goods. Go to a Fair Trade store and you will find the prices are lower and fairer to the consumer than ones sold by transnationals. I believe you have confused the term fair trade by equating it with protectionist policies. Fair Trade is international and in no way refers to national protectionism.