"Fair Trade" Products Create Economic Justice

Americans who buy items made in the developing world under a system known as fair trade are advancing economic justice rather than supporting exploitive labor practices in a poor country, says Rose Benz Ericson, author of the "The Conscious Consumer: Promoting Economic Justice Through Fair Trade.""The message really is how easy it is to just make tiny decisions that have a great impact on people across the world," says Ericson.She describes fair trade, also known as alternative trade, as the exchange of goods based on principles of economic and social justice. By reducing overhead and layers of distributors and marketers, fair trade organizations typically return one- quarter to one-third of the retail price to the workers.The results can be dramatic, as Ericson illustrates with brief examples:-- In Guatemala, 300 members of a women's cooperative have developed skills in literacy, bookkeeping and sewing through their creations of hand-woven clothing and accessories.-- In Mpigi, Uganda, income from the sales of cowhide-covered drums has enabled workers to build homes and pay schooling costs.-- In Oaxaca, Mexico, coffee farmers have doubled their income through partnerships with fair trade groups and established the region's first public bus line, constructed its only secondary school and built a community health clinic.The fair trade groups "aren't giving handouts to people but giving them success in the marketplace," Ericson says. And usually, the items cost about the same in stores and catalogs as commercially traded goods.Ericson, a former business reporter and currently a communications consultant, became interested in fair trade while shopping at a store carrying these goods near her home near Rochester, N.Y.Through her research she learned that the fair trade movement dates back well before the current concern about sweatshops and child labor. Stores selling goods produced by Third World cooperatives first opened in Europe in the 1960s.North America experienced a surge in alternative trade in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly as missionary projects of church-related organizations, as a part of humanitarian efforts and as political and economic action statements.The Fair Trade Federation, an association of fair trade businesses in North America, now counts about 100 members and sales of $35 million to $40 million through retail outlets, catalogs and church-run consignment sales.Fair Trade Federation members pledge to pay a fair wage, provide equal opportunities for all people, engage in environmentally sustainable practices, build long-term relationships, provide healthy and safe working conditions and provide financial and technical assistance to workers whenever possible.Fair trade organizations frequently work with cooperatives, which give workers a say in how their goods are created and sold and often provide benefits such as health care, child care and access to loans, Ericson writes.The organizations work with producers on marketing goods and modifying designs to appeal to customers abroad and often offer training in business skills. One organization, PEOPLink, is even training artisans to use the Internet to market products.Ericson, after meeting representatives from fair trade organizations at conferences and traveling to Costa Rica with the coffee company Equal Exchange, says she is impressed with their business skills and their commitment to sharing those skills with disadvantaged people.Yet the organizations face a number of challenges, Ericson writes. American consumers are more resistant to fair trade than are consumers in Europe, where fair trade has thrived. They often assume that the goods will cost more, which she claims is not the case. Consumers also get discouraged by the limited supply and variety of goods, the sometimes-erratic quality, and occasional disruptions of shipping from unstable producer countries.Ericson expects that fair trade will grow with Americans' concern about sweat shop conditions and child labor. "Once you become more conscious about what you're buying and think about what life is like for people making this produce, you start looking for alternatives," she says."The Conscious Consumer" is available from the Fair Trade Federation, P.O. Box 698, Kirksville, MO 63501. Marianne Comfort, a free-lance writer based in Schenectady, N.Y., has been a journalist for 12 years.

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