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What Does Fair Trade Mean?


I have a friend who’s a bit of a “free spirit.” The other day, she had a sip of my Maxwell House coffee and remarked, somewhat wistfully, “I wish you had some rich fair-trade coffee.”

Umm, rude. But more than it was rude, it was awkward that I didn’t know what fair trade really meant (hence my offense; I couldn’t care less what my coffee drip made). Never one to be shy of learning new things, I asked her what fair trade was. “It’s uh…you know…like not store brands I think?”

Ok, so she got some of it right. After some research, I discovered that Fair trade goods, ranging from coffee to sugar, are products that come from farmers who were justly compensated for their goods to be sold in our local supermarkets. The business they get from selling their goods in America’s free trade market helps sustain their [often impoverished] communities.

According to Fair Trade USA, “’Fair Trade’ helps ‘Free Trade’ work for the poor.” This ideal is what provides developing nations the tools they need to be competitors in the international economy. They provide farmers with fair prices and a large proportion of the retail price of their goods; workers with safe conditions; and the communities with resources for healthy and sustainable lives. This market-based approach is in an effort to eliminate exploitation of farmers as well as help their communities.

Rodney North of Equal Exchange (a Fair Trade goods distributor) describes the Fair Trade movement as "an alternative approach to the import and export of agricultural commodities that consciously addresses the chronic economic vulnerability and poverty of small-scale farmers in developing countries.”

In 2010, Equal Exchange teamed up with American Jewish World Service (AJWS) to create a Kosher line of Fair Trade products, called Better Beans, certified by the Orthodox Union (OU). AJWS encourages individuals who observe the laws of Kashrut to live their Jewish ethics and advance social justice around the world, as well as allows them to enjoy artisan coffees and chocolates from around the world. Additionally, a portion of Better Beans’ proceeds go to AJWS’s Fighting Hunger from the Ground Up campaign.

Equal Exchange has recently launched a campaign to support the authentic fair trade movement. This is in response to Fair Trade’s Fair Trade for All initiative, which aims to allow commodities from plantations into the Fair Trade system. This strategy of allowing goods from large producers into the Fair Trade system creates more competition for the small farmers for whom the movement was created. See the link below to join the Fair Trade campaign.

Although the eligibility for the Fair Trade system is now being challenged, we are still fortunate to have access to global commodities for low prices. It is incumbent upon us to take advantage of this boon and taste the world, while simultaneously promoting global justice and the vision of a just society.