Shop for Justice

By Valerie Orth

World Fair Trade Week, May 3-9, was an opportunity for Americans to combine their passion for shopping with economic justice, which are often at odds in the world of consumption. Last week when shoppers made an effort to purchase Fair Trade products, instead of grabbing boxes off the shelves, they were consciously choosing to improve the lives of small farmers and artisans around the world.

The Fair Trade programs supported by the international human rights group Global Exchange guarantee small-scale farmer cooperatives a minimum price, and thus a decent living. Fair Trade certification requires third-party monitoring to set a consistent standard that includes labor rights and environmental sustainability. So, when consumers in the developed world for one week in May make that conscious decision, they make a huge difference in the lives of others; and if they keep making that choice the rest of the year they could even gradually shift the global market in a more just direction.

Take coffee, for example. The Fair Trade price remains at $1.27 per pound. The world market price hovers around 60 cents and is sometimes significantly lower. But when the coffee gets to the consumer the price differential is just pennies on the dollar. Such an insignificant amount to the consumer can mean the farmers' children, and in turn their children, having adequate health care, clothing and education.

Or take chocolate: cocoa beans. In West Africa the situation for cocoa growers has gotten so bleak that the International Labor Organization has reported abusive child labor practices and even child slavery. Wouldn't somewhat more expensive chocolate be worth it, knowing your sweet tooth does not contribute to the immiseration of children?

Fair Trade remains a viable solution to these and many other producer problems. But right now the biggest problem with Fair Trade is insufficient demand. That is where World Fair Trade week came in, by publicizing the existence of Fair Trade and educating consumers about the need for Fair Trade.

Another even more effective way of ensuring the success of Fair Trade would be if major corporations like M&M/Mars, Starbucks and Procter & Gamble (as owner of Folger's and Millstone the country's largest coffee company) just started purchasing more Fair Trade product. If those companies alone started buying 5% of their product at Fair Trade prices, it would be a huge boost to the world Fair Trade market. But convincing those companies always takes work: It took a two-year campaign led by Global Exchange and other community organizations to get Proctor & Gamble to carry just one online Fair Trade coffee line.

M&M/Mars, the world's largest chocolate company with revenues of $16 billion, still won't engage in productive dialogue with Global Exchange to improve their Fair Trade purchasing position. Global Exchange organized a national call-in campaign last week and urged the company to buy Fair Trade cocoa beans.

Then there is Starbucks. In 2000 Starbucks promised to sell Fair Trade Certified coffee to head off a Global Exchange campaign demanding that the company buy 5% of its coffee under Fair Trade Certified terms. Yet this year less than 1% of Starbucks' coffee is Fair Trade Certified.

But Starbucks is brewing Fair Trade coffee during World Fair Trade Week. We're pleased that Starbucks is doing this and we are waiting for the day when brewed Fair Trade coffee at Starbucks will be the rule instead of a newsworthy exception. That would really be something to celebrate.

These large corporations have the ability and the responsibility to reform the coffee industry and dramatically increase Fair Trade sales. But it is also up to consumers and corporations to purchase more Fair Trade products not just during World Fair Trade Week but all year round.

Valerie Orth is a fair trade organizer with Global Exchange ( Phone 415-558-6938.

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