Is Fair Trade Green and is Green Fair Trade?

The following is an article I recently submitted to an online magazine for a networking group I’m part of. It’s quite relevant to Everyday Just Living.

The concept of fair trade often gets lumped together with the idea of going green, but is there really a connection between fair trade (an economic distinction) and environmental sustainability? There is….and there isn’t.

Fair trade refers to an economic model in which farmers and artisans in the developing world are paid fair living wages for their products, such as coffee, produce, and handicrafts. Environmental sustainability refers to the protection of ecosystems so they survive for future generations. Both terms are hot right now and are receiving growing acceptance and recognition among mainstream consumers looking to make purchasing decisions that have a positive impact.

Fair trade by its simplest definition focuses principally on the impact of economics on people. However, the organizations leading the fair trade movement are making efforts to ensure that the planet is also considered when placing a fair trade distinction on a product. Some of the leading organizations in the fair trade movement are the Fair Trade Federation (a U.S. association of businesses and organizations committed to fair trade), TransFair (the only third-party fair trade certifying body in the United States), and the International Fair Trade Association (IFAT, a global network of fair trade organizations). All three of these organizations incorporate environmental sustainability into their criteria for membership and, where applicable, for certification.

Fair trade and environmental sustainability happily coexist in most circumstances. Take coffee as an example. Fair trade coffee is purchased from small farmers who form cooperatives through which they sell their beans. Small farmers in Latin America and Asia value their land because they live on or near it and because it has often been in their families for generations. Therefore they are more likely to incorporate sustainable growing practices to protect their soil and water, such as growing under a canopy of trees and using compost instead of harmful chemical pesticides. Large coffee conglomerates lack this connection to the land and typically use slash-and-burn agriculture, which requires a high use of chemical pesticides. This unsustainable method of growing coffee exhausts the soil within a few years, but large coffee growers can afford to move on to fresh land, whereas small farmers know they have to maintain their farms to provide for future generations.

As another example, consider these fair trade candles produced in Guatemala and available from Bambootique. Proyectocndl_set_4.jpg Eco-Quetzal (PEQ) is an environmental nonprofit concerned with supporting indigenous Mayan people to preserve their remaining native forest. Much of the forest has been lost to agricultural uses, one of the few ways the Mayan people have been able to support themselves. As a form of alternative income for the Mayans, PEQ has encouraged the production of traditional candles, which are then sold to tourists within Guatemala and exported for sale in the U.S. The candles are made from a wax extracted from the seed of the arrayan tree, one of the most common trees in the Guatemalan forest. Sales of the candles have been very successful, providing an economic incentive to preserve the trees rather than cutting them down for farmland. Once again, fair trade goes green.

While fair trade usually implies environmental sustainability, the reverse is not necessarily true. Just because a product has a green claim does not mean the economics behind the product are fair. Take an organic rose grown in Colombia. Of course, the organic rose proves environmentally better for the Colombian soil, water, and even for the workers who grow and process the rose. However, its “organic” label does not indicate whether or not the workers were fairly paid. Quite possibly the organic rose was prepared for shipping in the same processing plant as a conventional rose. Sometimes organic companies state a specific commitment to paying fair wages to their workers, but unless a product is clearly marked as such, it can not be assumed that a green product is a fair trade product.

So, how do you select products that are both fair trade and green?

–Find out if the company is a member of any association or certifying body (Fair Trade Federation, Transfair, or IFAT). All fair trade certifying organizations have environmental standards their members must meet, although the level of standards does vary between organizations and between products.

— For companies making fair trade or green claims but not members of a particular related organization, ask questions about who made the product, what conditions it was made under (factory versus in-home workshop), and the source of the product’s inputs (such as recycled wood vs. virgin protected forest).

–Use common sense. If an imported, organic piece of fruit is not also marked as fair trade, it probably isn’t. Because so many people are looking for this information, companies are quick to offer it if it is indeed true of their product.

The bottom line is use whatever information is available to you to make the most informed decision. There is no way to know every possible bit of information about a product. Use the information you have to choose, as best you can, products that treat people fairly and care for the planet we all share.

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