Thursday, January 31, 2008

In the Back of my Fair Trade Brain

Sometimes as I face a new audience interested in Fair Trade, I have the occasional nagging doubt or two in the back of my head. I have given three talks already this month, and I head to Salt Lake City and New Hartford, NY next. I continue to be inspired and impressed with the interest people express in doing the right thing, in terms of how they treat other people and the environment. But I also notice as people turn to Fair Trade as an alternative that they run up against frustrations. Lots of folks want to do right and they want to do it right NOW. Once consumers get really get involved in Fair Trade will they be discouraged or distracted by its obstacles?

Most people in our society, myself included, are used to obtaining goods and services which are abundant and easy to access. Some folks may be living paycheck to paycheck but they still expect their store shelves to be full of products with enticing bargains. Yet because a full range of Fair Trade products aren't readily available in stores, consumers sometimes get thwarted in their attempts to buy Fair Trade. A colleague recently lamented forgetting another colleague's birthday. She wasn't able to run to a Ten Thousand Villages store all the way across town (some towns don't even have one Fair Trade store!) to pick one up. There was a drugstore right around the corner, but the closest it might get to having Fair Trade offerings is a Project (RED) card from Hallmark. With a few exceptions, like World of Good kiosks in Whole Foods stores, Fair Trade crafts are not readily available in most neighborhoods.

And what if handmade cards WERE at your local store? Could the Fair Trade movement, full of artisans painstakingly handcrafting each item, meet the demand of literally millions of cards in the United States alone? Some would say that Fair Trade is a niche and isn't expected to scale up to meet the demands of the entire economy; doesn't that belie the notion that Fair Trade is an alternative that can be applied to the conventional way of doing businesses? I mean if we can't get consumers what they want quickly and plentifully are we really doing proving Fair Trade as a business model.

Some will say--maybe on this blog?--that Fair Trade isn't about doing business. Instead it is about promoting development or building relationships. But, frankly, that isn't what I hear most from producers. To generalize from the most recent trips I have taken: Producers want more buyers for their products, and they want the opportunity to meet the consumers demands.

Which leads to my final nagging doubt: that we in the Fair Trade movement are fueling the over- consumption of our society. We are triggering the shopping reflex--the notion that demands should be met--even if we are encouraging more "socially responsible" trips to the store. We aren't regularly asking people to think carefully about how much they buy or why they even add more "stuff" to their lives. Global warming is a hot topic right now, but we all know climate change is tied to over-consumption. Is telling people to shop more doing the right thing right now?


  1. I completely agree with you that until we start trying to make Fair Trade a larger-scale business model, the movement will remain in the 'grass-roots' stage and never get into the mainstream. The truth is that more producers must me certified to sell their products under a fair trade label because the number of producers currently growing or making products now simply cannot and could not keep up with the mainstream demand. What we need to do is make it more affordable and accessible to become certified. More people and organizations need to work with the producers to assist them in the process and help them fundraise for it. It can be very frustrating for someone like me, who wants to buy fair trade everything and am lucky to find one type of fair trade coffee and no fair trade anything else at my local shops. Fair trade and its advocates need to get out of this 'grass-roots' mindset and start thinking about building a future for this movement that will make it grow at the same rate as the world's population and needs.

  2. Fair trade is an alternative business model that can be successful. The thing is that we all need to work together to make it more mainstream.

    We need to teach the artisan about how to make FUNCTIONAL products, how to make them efficiently, and how to keep up with market dynamics. This might mean that not everything can be ethnic or handmade, but made in a sustainable way.

    Some fair trade suppliers also need to muster up the courage to grow. We can all share the burdens of making the industry growth, but how?