With the U.S.-based Community Food
Security Coalition holding its annual conference in Vancouver this week, I
can’t think of a better way to establish food or any other kind of security
than ensuring that hungry people, wherever they live, get enough to eat and
While there are more than enough
people without enough in our own backyard to shame us all, poverty and hunger
in developing countries reach an even greater magnitude by about a
Unless you’re up for volunteering
with Oxfam or Habitat for Humanity on a project in a less fortunate part of the
world, one of the easiest and most effective things you can do to tip the
balance more equitably is to buy fair trade goods.
If you don’t have the fair trade
habit, now is a good time to start. October, that time of accelerated
purchasing for all things scary and merry, from Halloween to Christmas, has
been dubbed fair trade month in the U.S. It’s a timely concept worth putting on
our radar screens, too.
You’ve likely seen a fair trade logo
on a label or ad, or on a shop window sign or website. But most of us don’t
really understand what it means in all senses of the word.
If you want a formal definition,
Wikipedia offers one in spades: Fair trade is an organized
promotes equitable standards for international
social policy, whether or not the goods carry one of the recognized logos such
as “Fairtrade” or “Fair Trade Certified”.
Fair trade labeling indicates that
certain standards have been met through a system of monitoring and auditing.
The marks act like a guarantee, but some unlabelled products may still be
fairly traded despite their lack of certification by an appropriate agency.
Fair trade is rooted in notions of
sustainability and conscience. Trade, not aid, is a common mantra. Suppliers
are often organized into unions or cooperatives with a more direct link to the
consumer. Many of the middlemen, who often earn a ridiculously high portion of
the profits, are eliminated. The bottom line is that people who don’t happen to
live in a privileged country are able to earn a fairer income for their work.
The focus of the movement is on
exports from developing countries to developed countries. The subtext: current
international trade policies are unfair, especially to those in the developing
world. Many argue that this is obviously the case, whether they live in a
developing country or not. In fact, people argued so much so at the 2003 World
Trade Organization summit in Cancun, Mexico that they shut the talks down.
While most of us have only heard
about fair trade in the last 10 years or so, and only then in the context of
coffee or maybe chocolate and bananas, the concept actually started almost 60
years ago and had nothing to do with agricultural products. Handicrafts made by
people in developing countries were sold in shops run by Oxfam or Mennonites
(Ten Thousand Villages).
Most of us make the fair trade
association with coffee for a couple of good reasons. After the collapse of the
international coffee marketing board in 1989, world coffee prices became
notoriously unfair for growers and farmers. Prices steadily collapsed until
they reached near 100-year lows.
So coffee became something of a
philosophical and ethical battleground, with goliaths like Starbucks and Kraft
pitted against local fair trade coffee roasting companies, like Saltspring
Coffee Co. (which, serendipitously, also happens to supply certified organic
and shade-tree grown products).
Fair trade coffee may have a
relatively high profile, but if you snoop around a bit, fair trade goods also
include everything from T-shirts to furniture and cut flowers. In the food
aisles, you can find fair trade tea, chocolate, sugar, bananas, mangos, rice,
quinoa, spices and wine — the list grows as our understanding and demand does.
If you like the idea of fair trade
and want to keep it flowing, check out:
• TransFair Canada (www.
transfair.ca) to link to all kinds of global fair trade shopping connections.
• Saltspring Coffee, available at Big
Smoke Mountain BBQ, Nesters Market and Creekside Market in Whistler, Pemberton
Valley Supermarket in Pemberton, Naked Lunch in Squamish and tons of stores and
cafes in the Lower Mainland.
• Ten Thousand Villages at two
locations in Vancouver: 1204 Commercial Drive (604-323-9233) or 2150 West
Fourth Ave. (604-730-6831).
Waking up to the real smell of
One award-winning documentary is
making big dents in coffee-buying habits and creating a big buzz on the
festival circuit at the same time.
Black Gold: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
tracks the efforts of Tadesse Meskela to get the 74,000
members of his Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in Ethiopia a fair price
for their coffee.
In one telling scene, coffee growers
chuckle and shake their heads in what could be a combination of disbelief and
profound resignation when Tadesse tells them that for a pound of coffee,
Americans pay 2,000 times the amount the farmers get.
The film had one person at the
Sundance Festival reaching for his cheque book to bequeath $10,000 for a school
for the small village where the cooperative is centred. Another viewer
purportedly dumped all $10,000 worth of her Starbucks shares after seeing the
was two and a half years in the making, but no one from
Starbucks, which offers only one fair-trade coffee, or any of the three other
multinationals that pretty much control the conventional coffee trade was
available for comment.
Fairly solid ways to build
The fair trade system benefits more
than 800,000 farmers organized into cooperatives and unions in 48 countries.
The following principles inform fair trade. Though they may seem a bit dry to
wade through, once you grasp their essence, you can see what a powerful agent
of change a fair consumer choice can be. It may not be a perfect system, but
each decision you make can be a start in:
• Creating opportunities for people
who are economically disadvantaged or have been marginalized by conventional
• Providing a fair price for products
so growers and producers can earn a living. For commodities, farmers receive a
stable, minimum price. In the case of fair trade coffee that currently means
about US$1.26 per pound. When cooperatives are involved, funds are funneled
into community projects like schools or wells for clean water.
• Eliminating forced labor and
exploitative child labor.
• Helping producers access financial
and technical assistance that make production easier, more efficient or
• Building sustainable production and
healthy, safe working conditions.
• Transparency and accountability.
All aspects of trade and production are open to public scrutiny.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning
freelance writer who wonders if we could get even fairer than fair trade.