Friday, May 11, 2007

Fair Trade Isn't Just an Economic Policy

As economist Dean Baker noted earlier this week on his blog, globalization creates winners and losers. The goal of our American policies should be to create as many winners as possible, but the task isn't only about policy.

Tomorrow is the official worldwide Fair Trade Day, which has been observed on the second Saturday in May for the past five years. This day is a call to consumers to be more mindful of the purchases they make on a daily basis, which is at least as important as the broader policy initiatives instituted by the government.

And buying fair trade products doesn't mean you need to go out of your way or even necessarily pay more. All it takes is being mindful.

Fair trade food is the easiest to spot because it comes with this label:

This label is overseen by a group called TransFair USA. The group's website even does some of the work for you by identifying retailers and distributors that offer fair trade certified products such as coffee, tea, chocolate, fruit, etc.

And while the cost of fair trade food can be higher in some instances, it's not always the case. Take coffee, for instance, which is perhaps the easiest of the fair trade products to find. The fair trade coffee I buy at Trader Joe's runs $4.99 per 14 oz. package, which is more than generic brand coffees like Folgers, but it's significantly less than other premium brands like Starbucks (which also offers a fair trade coffee, but for around $10 per pound).

Clothes tend to be a little more difficult to track because there isn't currently an independent third party agency like TransFair USA that certifies clothing products as fair trade. But that hasn't stopped some retailers from popping up that focus on quality fair trade clothing.

One that's worth highlighting is a Wisconsin start-up called Fair Indigo, which is based in Madison. The company was founded last year by former Lands End executives, and it currently has one store at Hilldale Mall in Madison, and it also sells its products online and through a mail order catalog.

Using the help of UW researchers, Fair Indigo has contracted with select family-owned and co-op factories that pay living wages as opposed to the minimum wages that often aren't enough to sustain a family. And, regarding price, the website notes:
If done carefully, fair trade does not have to cost more. While a bigger share of the clothing you buy from us goes directly to the worker, we can hold the other costs down in several ways. First, we use worker-owned cooperatives wherever we can. This eliminates layers of overhead since worker and owner are one and the same. Second, wherever possible we work directly with each of our non co-op factories, eliminating the need for middlemen. And finally, unlike most clothing brands, we do not spend huge sums on advertising, instead relying on you, our customers, to spread the word about Fair Indigo.
The prices for most Fair Inidgo products are about on par with what you'd find at a clothing store like Gap (which, to its credit, has started to combat sweatshop labor in its factories in recent years).

You can also find info about fair trade clothing and other products in the Milwaukee area from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee website, and at the website for the Milwaukee fair trade store called Four Corners of the World.

While economic globalization may be inevitable, the form it takes is not.

The growth and development of our consumer society over the course of the last century has created some cultural problems including overzealous materialism and transaction-oriented thinking. Aiming our dollars at fair trade products is at least one way to wield our country's enormous purchasing power in an attempt to create as many winners in the global marketplace as possible, while also strengthening our labor position at home.


Side-Note: If you're looking for American-made clothing, American Apparel -- which manufactures all of its own modestly-priced clothing in Los Angeles -- is probably the biggest retailer out there. There aren't any American Apparel stores in Wisconsin, but there are a number around Chicago and one in Minneapolis, and clothes can be purchased online.

The Wisconsin AFL-CIO website also offers detailed info on where to go to find union-made clothing and other products.

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Blogger CMCE Reformer said...

When people talk about "Free Trade," they are really talking about the politicians that are bought and sold by corporate America. Get the money out of the political system -- with public funding of campaigns -- and it will become "fair trade" virtually overnight.

May 11, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I don't doubt public financing would help. But that doesn't mean consumers don't -- or can't -- have an important role to play even without public financing.

May 11, 2007  
Blogger Dad29 said...

Consumer involvement is critical.

Too bad that nothing coming from PRChina can be labeled "fair trade."

May 11, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Buy locally as much as you can.

May 14, 2007  
Blogger Alicia said...

For those of you who are interested in the issue of Fair trade, there is a powerful documentary out called “Black Gold,” that documents the lives of Ethiopian coffee farmers and clearly demonstrates why all of us should be asking for Fair Trade coffee. The film was recently released in the theater but is now available to the public on DVD via California Newsreel. You can read more about the documentary or pick up a copy of it here at

May 14, 2007  

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