Buying Fair Trade is a laudable goal for the socially conscious: It’s a practice that ensures safe working conditions and equitable wages for people in developing countries who, in the capitalist free market system, have been easy targets to overwork and underpay in order to beef up someone else’s profits.
If you pay people in a third-world country a fair wage, the kids there are more likely to go to school and get educated because they don’t have to work to help the family get enough to eat. If a community organizes into a farm co-op and earns enough to invest in more organic practices, it can develop a healthier and more sustainable approach for future years—and future generations.
Unfortunately Fair Trade is still fairly new, so a consumer won’t be able to just walk into the closest supermarket and swap out all their old staples for Fair Trade-certified alternatives. It takes more effort—and more money.
How much more? Well, for some items, such as coffee, you won’t notice a difference if you’re already drinking something better than Folgers out of a can. (Some critics say that’s because now that so many people can make a living wage by producing coffee, there’s more on the market and the prices are being driven down. Bummer!)
For other things, you’ll have to really feel like helping others to pay Fair Trade prices. For example, in a higher-end supermarket where a 3-oz. Ghirardelli bar was priced at $2.49, a 3.5-oz. Fair Trade-certified “Alter Eco” was $3.99. At a food co-op, “conventional” bananas were 59 cents per pound, while Fair Trade bananas were $1.49 per pound. Prices will vary, but these numbers give you an idea of how much more you can expect to pay.
Sorry, but it’s going to cost you more if the people harvesting your bananas or the cocoa for your chocolate bars aren’t getting a raw deal.
If you’re committed to Fair Trade ideals, you’ll want to join your local food co-op if there’s one in your area. You’ll find a wider selection of certified products, and as a co-owner, if there’s something you’d like to see on the shelves, you can pipe up.
Another option is to urge your local supermarket manager to carry more Fair Trade products.
Co-Op America’s Fair Trade Guide offers tips on mobilizing your community to campaign for such products. It includes a sample letter you can refer to when you write to your store manager, and it lists Fair Trade importers of such produce as coffee, chocolate, sugar, produce and spices.
Funny thing about the free market society here in the United States that can be so crippling to the small farmer in a third-world country: The big corporations want to please us, because they want our business, so we do have a say and we can make a difference.
Heather L. Jones is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Davis, Calif.