Tuesday, July 19, 2011

(yogic) reasons to buy fair trade

With the natural introspection that comes from an economic recession, the "buy local" movement is gaining momentum.  However, there are a lot of good things in life that simply don't come "local", at least not in these temperate climes!  Tea, coffee, cotton, silk, spices, chocolate... to name just a few!  Now, we could live without them... Nah, who am I kidding?!  In any case, I don't believe that boycotting imported goods is really a good thing, since on the other side of those goods is another human being who depends on trade for their livelihood.  I do, however, believe that those people, just like me, should be paid a fair and decent wage for their work - enough to support their families and invest in their futures.

According to the UK's FairTrade foundation: "Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers."

From a yogic perspective, I look at buying fair trade as an expression of the yama of Asteya, or non-stealing.  When we buy goods that are sourced through exploitation, we are complicit in a form of "theft" - taking people's time and the fruits of their work without compensation.

Fair trade goods are likely to be more expensive than their regular competitors, but I like to think that when I buy my tea or coffee at fair trade prices, I am likely to value it more and use it more wisely, recognizing that it was produced by another person, halfway around the world, and that in some small way, that connects us.

Does FairTrade really make a difference? I think so.  A few months ago I was lucky enough to attend a small lecture at Oxfam.  The guest speakers were two women from Ghana, who are members of the Kuapa Kokoo cocoa-producing cooperative.  They earn their living and support their families (and extended families) purely on producing and selling cocoa, that is turned into chocolate.  Kuapa Kokoo is even more special than most - the cocoa farmers in the cooperative also earn a 45% share in Divine Chocolate, the company that turns the cocoa into (delicious!) chocolate and nets the profits from consumers.

The women who spoke to us told us what a difference fair trade prices, and dividends from the chocolate sales, make to their lives.  One woman was supporting her sister's 3 orphaned children, and the other was paying for her younger siblings to go to University.  Both women owned their own land - a rarity in West Africa as well as many other parts of the world.

So yes, I think fair trade makes a difference.  And if the world is our backyard, then behind each of those products there is also a "local" farmer or producer, who depends on that commodity for their livelihood - to build their house, feed and clothe their children, and build a better future. 

In the UK, fair trade goods are marked with the distinctive symbol.  And while fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate are fairly easy to come by, other commodities like cotton are not yet consistently marked.  However you can find fair trade lines at many major shops these days - including of course, the fabulous online Oxfam shop!  And although the prices are high, at least when you buy fair trade goods, you know that you money is actually going to go to the producer, and not to the middle-man.  It is a good test of our commitment to the yogic principle of generosity!


  1. Hi there,

    Just wanted to agree with you on how FairTrade really matters. My dad works for a non-profit organization that, among other things, gives out micro-finance loans to individual entrepeneurs in developing countries. These entrepeneurs use the loans to set up their business and make their produce to sell it FairTrade. If no one buys their produce, their business will go bankrupt and they will have to go back and work for some Western exploiter. So yes, it does matter!

    I always try to buy some stuff FairTrade, but it's difficult, because not all stores sell it and as you've said, not all products even exist FairTrade.

    P.s. Really like your blog! Good writing!

  2. Loved to read your thoughts and feelings about the fair trade! I usually try to buy local, but of course, sometimes there's no way of avoiding buying goods that come from very far away... Another dilemma I have is buying local vs. buying totally organic, as sometimes certain organic veggies come from other countries. I wonder if i should go for the organically grown which is healthier for me and the earth, but then... all the pollution it makes just to arrive here. Or buying local, but the veggies were sprayed with pesticides and all sorts of chemicals that destroys the Eco-system and are extremely unhealthy and harmful.
    By the way, I've been dying to comment on your blog about Dili in Timor lorosae, as I've been wanting to go there since I'm a kid (I'm Portuguese, so I've lived the whole conflict and genocide from far but in a very emotional way), I couldn't find a way of posting comments there or getting in touch with you directly.

  3. @Sonja - Thanks for your comment! It's great to hear first-hand from one of the many people like yourself and your dad who help to make fair trade a reality.

    @Yara - thanks so much for commenting. :) I think buying fair trade is just as important as buying local - in my mind, the entire world is our "local". What we do in the West has a huge impact on people in the developing world, including climate change, trade policy, and aid policy to name just a few. If you take buying local to it's extreme, you come up with just another form of protectionism - so I think it's important to support producers from other places as well.

    East Timor is a magical place and I hope you get to go there someday. I'd be happy to talk to you more about it, you can email me at: lagitane [at] mac [dot] com.

  4. I like your comment ! It's a great idea. I expect to travell there some day