Since our class discussion on the “WE FIRST Economy,” I have been thinking about why it is that we support companies that take advantage of people’s low status or put their lives at risk. I wonder why it is we are okay buying smartphones from factories that are unsafe to work in and proudly sport Nike clothes that likely came from a child sweatshop. As I think about the people in our class, I don’t think the reason is that people do not care. However, there seems to be a disconnect with how we believe in equality, opportunity and fairness in our country, but don’t realize, that we use our strong economy to take advantage of poorer countries in order to get our chocolate fix or our styling kicks.
It’s tempting for me to just say, “yeah, we shouldn’t do that to ‘them,’ but I don’t have time to fix the chocolate industry, so I am just going to eat my Snickers and be on my way.” I think it becomes easier to justify it to myself when it is just “them” all the way across the world. If I don’t hear their pain, if I don’t see their poverty, and if I don’t know their name, I will just keep traveling the path of least resistance. We hear stories about suffering around the world all the time, and I think our emotions can get worn out. But beyond the emotional stories, fair trade makes sense. Supporting fair trade is about being human and being educated about who I buy from and how it was made. If we open up ourselves to the facts, eventually, the cognitive dissonance will sink in and we might change our actions. If you have time, take a look at Fairtrade Foundation to get a better hold on what it means to buy fairly traded products. It is more than just making sure farmers get a fair price; it’s about building up the economy in the way that makes things better for everyone in the long run in the way Mainwaring suggested. It prohibits issues we are obviously concerned about, like child labor, but also covers some things that may have not made it on your radar yet, like banning GMO foods and harmful chemicals. These issues are important to our well being and that of the farmers, their families and our planet.
Even though I think it is important to be educated about how the fair trade system works and be inspired to buy their products, I wanted to take things a step further and have us consider an aspect of fair trade that could be improved. Fair trade is definitely in the heart of the communities and expanding the infrastructure of farmers to make them independent. However, I often get the sense that it is the mighty USA that is helping them by buying their products. We have the large corporations that sell the goods from the poor countries. Seattle’s Theo Chocolate is a leader in selling fairly traded chocolate, provides fair wages to all their employees, and has mind-blowing delicious chocolate. California’s Patagonia is on center stage for sustainable and fairly traded clothing.
Do you see the inequality too?
The farmers in Africa grow the cocoa, but we are the ones that get to put Theo Chocolate Factory on the map as a tourist destination in Seattle. The workers in Peru sew the clothing, but the world knows Patagonia as an American company. In other words, we get to stay at the top of the food chain.
A example of a company taking the next step in the fair trade industry can be found in Liberia with Liberty and Justice, which founded the first fair trade clothing manufacturing company. They now have over 700 employees at their factory in Liberia, and have expanded to Ghana and Benin. What is unique about Liberty and Justice is that the Liberians are the ones who are at the top. They are the ones who are in control of their destiny. They get the credit that is due to them. In a way, buying from Patagonia feels like buying clothes from someone’s uncle, whereas buying from Liberty and Justice feels like buying from my brother or sister. And sisters are mainly who they employ. Liberty and Justice is totally attuned to the needs of the people in their country and hire women all the way into their 40s. Most factories look for women around age 23 because that is when production is highest.
If we really want to stress equality for everyone, the fair trade system needs to start thinking about the next step: to let companies like Liberty and Justice rise to the top. They embody the meaning of fair trade and should take their rightful place as an example in this movement. Buy fairly traded products and give a fair wage for a fine product. Buy from locally branded companies and give the respect that is due to hard workers everywhere.