Fair trade: the true and just economic practice

Fair trade – a practice and term often found in the health food aisles of supermarkets, as tags on artisanal chocolate bars, and as new initiatives adopted by corporations. A steadily growing movement, fair trade has come to be seen as favorable or even stylish by both businesses and consumers alike. There is an undeniable note of appeal that emanates from products that are labeled as such. It is not surprising to highly regard fair trade items or choose them over other non-fair trade ones as they carry good meaning; after all, one cannot help but feel contributive when purchasing a fair trade product. If it does good for people and the environment, then it certainly means it is worth paying extra. For instance, in England, shoppers are three times more likely to choose environmentally friendly products than they were in 2011, despite the squeeze on their incomes. Many are becoming more aware and considerate of ethical consumption. 

This raises the question: is fair trade the ideal form of trade? In other words, should it be implemented as the only acceptable business practice?

Image:  ​the Japanese site of People Tree - a fair trade company that deals with a broad range of products involving apparel and chocolate bars like the ones above

Arguably the biggest and solid reason for supporting fair trade is ethics. Many corporate giants, particularly those involved in food production, rely on problematic practices such as slavery. It may sound astounding to some as it seems to be, or is extinct at this point. Unfortunately, it is kept well alive by industries such as Nestlé; the American titan of chocolate manufacturing. Despite its code of conduct that prohibits child labor, children younger than 15 continue to work on its cocoa farms under hazardous conditions. Besides Nestlé, other major companies including Hershey, Cargill, ADM, and Barry Callebout are also involved in the use of child labor. The children work in the cocoa fields of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, the latter area being the world’s largest producer of cocoa, the raw ingredient that makes chocolate. This partially explains why chocolate is one of the forefront subjects in fair trade alongside coffee. 

It is absolutely unacceptable that corporations are reaping massive benefits while workers are mercilessly exploited. The aforementioned company names are easily recognizable as some of the largest and most popular chocolate producers. The fact that such well-known brands are exercising foul business practices is simply shocking. This is why fair trade is necessary for putting an end to the suffering of laborers, who are placed in a weak position by the corporations. 

At the same time, fair trade plays a vital role in improving lives and ultimately, communities. With better income, workers can focus on other important aspects of life, especially education. For example, the Indonesian chocolate company Krakakoaengages with smallholder cocoa farmers directly to increase the quantity and quality of their harvest.​ With better knowledge, higher income, and needed materials for work, laborers supported by Krakakoa are prevented from participating in illegal encroachment into national parks - simultaneously reducing environmental damage. Furthermore, farmers are trained in organic farming techniques, disease management, fermentation, and conservation; providing them sustainable working practices. 

Image: this simple graphic by Krakakoa summarizes the common problems experienced in typical chocolate production; from low income to environmental degradation

Corrupt business practices by large corporations reveal the sinister workings of capitalism itself; a system that prioritizes profit over ethics. It supposedly makes sense for its logic: earnings are based on the amount of labor. But in reality, the mechanism has proved to be fundamentally flawed with private business owners garnering the large share of profit while workers only receive a tiny fraction. As businesses gain more power and control, they can easily eliminate competitors, suppress workers’ rights, and get away with crimes such as child labor. The situation becomes further graver with the understanding that much of everyday goods - clothes, electronics, foods - come from problematic labor practices. Coltan, the mineral used for phones, comes from the mines in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) rife with slavery and child labour. 

Paired with recent economic instability, with average households struggling to live with ever-tighter wages, the system insidiously allows foul businesses like Nestlé to continue with producing cheap, unethical goods. For a typical consumer living with a limited budget, cheap goods are essentially the only available choices. This inevitably creates a negative cycle: consumers are virtually made to buy unethical products, profits go to the corporations, faulty practices continue, and so forth. 

Image: the ten principles of fair trade listed by the WFTO illustrate the necessary steps in establishing healthy business practices - aiding both people and nature

To those who argue that such practices are “inevitable” and cannot be changed, what is being committed by corporations such as Nestlé qualify as crimes; they deride human rights and the environment, gain astronomical profits, and continue to do so. This is part of human responsibility, to confront the fact that others are facing unjust circumstances while the fruits of their labor are unfairly distributed. Not a blueprint but an experiment, fair trade offers a glimpse of what would happen if businesses were managed with democratic consideration; to prove that it brings goodwill to many when executed properly. 

There needs to be more unified, widespread changes in order to halt this system. Fair trade does not have to be limited at luxury chocolates or premium coffee. While giving money to small-scale sellers does contribute to families and villages, it does not change the overall capitalistic structure that fair trade is intended to combat in the first place. Publicity is a vital factor; to alert the masses and at least spread word of the atrocities committed by the industries. Numbers and knowledge are needed to rally against such corporations and to alert them that they need to change their ways. If the movement gains enough traction, fair trade as the norm may eventually become a reality – wholesome in both quality and morals.