Fairtrade, Consumerism, and Buying Local

Two years ago, while I was in Turkey, I was taking a class on social resistance. It was a bit too anarchist for my taste (Did I really just say that!?!), but there were a few sections of the curriculum that really got me thinking. One of them was a critique of the concept of fair trade.

The articles we read and discussed, which I cannot find at the moment, focused on how fair trade is implemented on tea plantations in India. They showed how calling a plantation a cooperative takes away the few governmental protections plantation workers have without giving them the benefits that fair trade consumers assume fair trade implies. Ultimately, it results in higher poverty for the workers, and fewer educational opportunities for their children. Not really what you want to contribute to when you purchase fair trade.

I am not saying that all fair trade certified companies are like this. However, it is the problem when you use one set of standards and try to apply them as something meaningful across different types of industries, different sizes of companies, and different work cultures. It actually becomes harmful, not helpful.

Before taking this course, I was one of the westerners who thought fair trade was a great concept. I thought it was a way to be an ethical consumer without having to do constant research. Because, honestly, we have too many choices to research them all. Now, I am not anti-fair trade, but I do think it is more or less meaningless and definitely not worth the price mark up.

In almost every online forum I am part of, the idea of ethical consumerism (and ethical production) comes up at some point or another. Inevitably, someone jumps in with the simple solution of, “Just buy fairtrade certified products!”

I usually provide a few links to fair trade in regards to tea production and write a small blurb about how fair trade is not as simple and clearcut as many Americans believe. I usually advocate buying local, when possible or doing research about the specific brand you are purchasing if you really want to be ethical.

Usually, my comments are taken quite poorly. People get defensive. They say that at least fairtrade is trying, or there is no way to purchase the products they want locally when production is almost completely outsourced from America. I know to stop then. It is pointless. It is not my goal to make people feel bad about themselves, or even question their own spending habits. All I want is to give information to people who have already decided that they want to be fair and responsible consumers. Unfortunately, what I have learned, about others and myself, is that we only want to be fair and responsible consumers when it fits into our budgets and lifestyle.

We don’t want to give up our technology, our clothing, our out of season food, and our great coffees, teas and chocolates. We want to buy them ethically, but if we can’t, we will still purchase them, because we are used to them. They have gotten ingrained into our quality of life. Ultimately, we think we deserve them.

The other day, when this came up in my writing group, I had an epiphany. About all of the anger and guilt people feel and about my own shopping. When make excuses, such as,

“Researching ethical companies is impossible. It takes too much time and the information isn’t there.” 


“What I want/need is simply not produced ethically.”


“Ethical consumerism is beyond my budget.”


“What I want/need is not produced locally.”

We are more or less saying that our desire and comfort is more important than the living conditions of the people who produce what we consume. That hit me hard. Is my cheap cup of coffee more important than a child’s education? Is my ability to drink wine, eat chocolate, or use a smartphone more important than someone’s ability to eat and have adequate shelter? Am I really that selfish?

Of course, looking at it from the other angle, you have to wonder what would happen to these people is Europeans and Americans stopped buying their products. They have a very poor living at the moment, but how much worse would it be if they had no work? Is a boycott really the solution? Because the owners of sweat shops and tea plantations are already rich enough to not be hurt by closing down and retiring. It will only hurt the workers.

It is no wonder we just try not to think about where things come from and make blind purchases, hoping we are somewhat ethical. But ultimately, global consumerism has very little hope of being ethical. It is only when we start to focus on people and experiences as opposed to things that we might be able to make changes. Maybe.







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