4 Myths about Fair Trade

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If you know me well, you’ll know that I’ve got a bit of a bee in my bonnet about shopping ethically. I am a big fan of the Fair Trade movement, which aims to make sure that growers and producers in the developing world get fair pay and humane treatment for the products we clamour for in the UK and around the world. It’s important to me that when I buy clothes, I know that the factory worker who helped to produce them is not working in a building that may collapse at any moment. It’s important to me that that factory worker can go home and feed their family, and that they can send their children to school. It’s important to me that that factory worker who is making my clothes and shoes has clothes and shoes to wear for her or himself. When I buy chocolate – perhaps to take to my work in a primary school for my lunch break – it is important to me that primary aged children have not been forced to work to help to make it. I think everyone deserves a simple life in which their basic needs are met and they can live peacefully with their families, able to enjoy the environment and community around them.

It can be hard to ensure that all my purchases are Fair Trade, as there is not always the information out there and some products are harder to get than others. I, like many people in the UK, am working on a tight budget as I try to pay for rent, bills and the like and to still have a social life too. I find it frustrating that some people assume that supporting Fair Trade is for the rich, because actually it is essentially a movement that supports the worker. It is not charity, but treating people fairly, giving them a livable wage for the work they do and not trapping them in poverty.

When I talk to people about trying to buy Fair Trade products, I often get one or more of four responses:

1. It’s too expensive.

2. It doesn’t work.

3. The products aren’t as good.

4. We want to support British companies.

I’d like to address some of these ideas…

1. It’s too expensive.

Fair Trade/ethically sourced products can be more expensive than other products. For example, a cotton top from People Tree (Fair Trade fashion retailer) is going to cost more than a cotton top from some of the popular high street shops. One of my approaches to this is to move away from the culture of ‘Fast Fashion’ where we buy new clothes very regularly to keep up with changing trends. Instead, I try to buy key basics that will last longer and can be worn with a range of items I already have. After all, it is worth paying a little more to know that someone is able to eat and drink, rather than getting a bargain but not being sure that the maker has a similar quality of life to yourself. Consistently buying low cost products from companies who have unclear policies on looking after producers could be keeping workers in unfair levels of poverty.

This does mean that sometimes I have to wait for stuff I want. I can’t always afford to buy something new every month. But I do have what I need, and I appreciate the new things I do buy so much more, partly because I have had to save for them and partly because it feels so good knowing that someone’s life somewhere is better because of people like me supporting the retailer I bought from. Sometimes I have to make do with what I’ve got for longer than I would have in the past, whether that means putting a coat through the wash, sewing up a hole in a cardigan, or polishing up some boots that are past best. Sometimes if I can’t find/afford something I need from a Fair Trade supplier, I’ll look in charity shops as an alternative, and have found some great purchases for low prices.

If you are worried about the cost, you can take advantage of offers and sales. Many Fair Trade retailers have seasonal sales and if you sign up for emails they will often send you voucher codes/coupons. At the moment, Braintree, Traidcraft, People Tree and Toms all have sale items and offers.

(Whether or not you do use the sales and offers, buying less often will mean you can afford to spend a little more, and the quality is so good your purchases should last for longer. If you do follow that People Tree link, they are currently donating 10% of their knitwear profits to help with the aid effort in Nepal.)

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In terms of groceries, a lot of supermarkets have a bigger range of lower priced Fair Trade items now: own brand chocolate, hot chocolate, tea, coffee, nuts, fruit and other products, which are not expensive at all. You can also buy certain products in bulk from suppliers like Traidcraft, which means you get the best prices. I buy tea, coffee, washing up liquid, and surface cleaner in bulk and this works out at much the same price I would pay to stock up in the supermarket, if not cheaper.

In the same way that a ‘Slow Fashion’ approach can help you to save money whilst staying ethical, a ‘Slow Food’ approach can also have an impact on your grocery shopping. Whether this means growing herbs and salad vegetables, buying fewer cakes and snacks in favour of making them, or creating more of your meals from scratch, it can mean you end up buying less and living in a more world-friendly way.

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2. It doesn’t work.

Of course there are huge problems of injustice in the world and the impact of Fair Trade is not seen or felt by many who ought to benefit from it. In my view, this is even more reason to get Fair Trade into the mainstream. The more people who buy Fair Trade, the more Fair Trade stockists can support their suppliers, and the more other shops will start prioritising the principles of Fair Trade.

It does shock me that Fair Trade is not the general expectation but is in fact going against the norm. What does that say about our society? We are the consumers. I don’t want to bring up children in a society who only care about what they can get and ignore the plight of people who are working hard but still trapped in poverty and oppression. What kind of a world is that? If we make Fair Trade the norm, the expectation, then it will work.

But even now, even though it doesn’t reach as many people as we might like it to, it does reach many people. Go to People Tree’s home page to see the smiling faces of the people behind their clothes and you will see that the Fair Trade movement is working for them. Or read stories like this one from Traidcraft to hear about honey farmers and other producers around the world. It’s working for them, too.

There’s a story about a little boy walking along a beach. He sees that the tide has washed in hundreds of starfish, and they are all stranded on the beach. He starts to pick them up, one by one, and throw them back into the water. An old man watches him for a while and then remarks “What is the point? You’ll never get to all of them. What you’re doing won’t make a difference!”

The boy picked up another one, threw it in, and replied “It made a difference to that one, didn’t it?”

Surely if we can make a difference to just one or two lives, it’s worth it, isn’t it? It’s working for them, and that makes all the difference.

3. The products aren’t as good.

There is now such a range of Fair Trade coffee, tea and other food products that this simply cannot be an excuse. Even if you don’t like one Fair Trade product, there are plenty more to choose from. I have found my favourite Fair Trade coffee, tea and hot chocolate and all of them are better than many other products, as is the honey I like. Find one you like, rather than tarring all Fair Trade products with the same brush.

In terms of non-food products, the quality of many Fair Trade brands is notable. A dress I bought from People Tree has lasted beautifully, kept its shape and still looks new. The shoes I bought from Toms (which don’t have the Fair Trade mark but are providing jobs and other community help in Haiti) are excellent. I bought ceramic mugs, wicker candle holders, earrings and other products as Christmas presents, all of which looked and felt really special.

Many Fair Trade/ethical products are handmade, which adds to the quality and detail you are getting.

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4. We want to support British companies.

I do, too. I tend to buy British meat, fruit and vegetables because I am committed to helping British farmers. I buy other products made in the UK too as I want to support those companies that are providing much needed jobs here. Buying Fair Trade doesn’t need to affect this – because most of the products focused on by the Fair Trade movement are not made or grown in this country anyway. If you buy things made in the UK – whether that is food, clothing, home products or any number of other things, the chances are that the makers were paid a relatively fair price for their work, and were safe in their workplace, because we have laws here about Minimum wage and health and safety. Supporting Fair Trade is simply making sure that that happens elsewhere in the world too.

 

The fact is that if you have money, you have power. Even if you don’t consider yourself rich, you are a consumer in this country every time you buy your groceries or clothes or things for your house. That money that you have to spend on these things, whether it is a lot or a little, means you have choices to make that can influence other lives.

Yes, committing to Fair Trade does mean some changes to your lifestyle, so why not start with small changes like looking out for Fair Trade items in the supermarket?

In the run-up to World Fair Trade Day (16th May), I’ll be posting more ideas and inspiration for how to make supporting Fair Trade a way of life, so you can see if at least some Fair Trade products could work for you. There will be examples/reviews of my latest Fair Trade purchases, a post on some of the dilemmas I face in trying to buy Fair Trade, and some recommended products for you to try.

I would love to try to answer any questions you have or respond to any comments if I can.

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