Originally appears in the Winter 2018 issue.
It seems counter-intuitive that the people who produce many commodities that we highly value are also some of the poorest people in our world who live in the countries that find themselves towards the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index. This is the case with farmers and workers who produce much of our clothing, as well as our coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, fruit, and other tropical crops.
Fair trade is the system that combats this inequity by offering producers an opportunity for better pay and working conditions, greener environmental practices, more clout in the global marketplace, and a price premium that allows for community development where they live.
In my travels over a long career, I’ve seen evidence that when given the opportunity and treated fairly, people in communities in the poorest countries — specifically, many tropical nations in the so-called Global South — can increase their quality of life. Fairer trade can benefit the poor producer more than conventional charitable aid donations currently do. While your generosity toward a charity is much appreciated and does some good, more at the policy level needs to be done to ensure that we will have better quality products and that others will have better lives. As an example, in Tanzania, East Africa I’ve seen people “graduate” from walking to bicycling to driving, and from no communication technology to 24-7 internet and phone access, thanks in part to the benefits of fair trade in the handicraft market. In Central and South America, I’ve seen the same in the coffee, cocoa, and sugar markets.
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