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THE CONSCIOUS CONSUMER
AND FAIR TRADE

Fair Trade has been in the news a lot lately due to the protests in Seattle and Washington, DC against the World Trade Organization, but do most consumers really know what Fair Trade means?

Fair Trade is trading with lesser developed nations in a positive and fair manner. Organizations involved in Fair Trade are called Alternative Trade Organizations (ATOs) or Fair Trade Organizations (FTOs). They form the grass-roots layer of the Fair Trade network and work with artisans and farmers to get their products to the markets of developed nations (the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and parts of Asia). ATOs and FTOs often provide funding for materials and pre-payments to the producers as well as marketing and design advice. Many are non-profit organizations that provide health care and education to the entire community. The goods produced with the assistance of these organizations are marketed through all types of retailers: some retailers specialize in Fair Trade items and others enhance their existing product selection with these handcrafted goods. The results are that artisans are provided a sustainable level of living for themselves and their families while preserving cultural traditions involved in the creation of their handicrafts.

Now lets touch a little on the negative aspects that exist today in trading with poorer nations. Shoppers in more developed nations are benefiting, usually unknowingly, from the exploitation of workers and destruction of natural resources in third world countries. The lower cost of consumer products in industrialized nations is gained at a high price to the workers in the countries that manufacture these products. The wage they are paid is usually below the poverty level and they receive little or no health care or other benefits. Child labor is often used. These factories are commonly known as "sweatshops" and may be run by local businesses as well as global corporations.

The term conscious consumer has been applied in the past to people that are concerned with the impact on the environment of how products are produced. Trade issues have only recently been getting attention and European consumers are leading the way in seeking out Fair Trade products. However, more and more consumers around the world are deciding that the conditions of the workers are also important and are choosing to purchase commodities, coffee being a prime example, from Fair Trade sources.

Another opportunity for conscious consumers to make a difference is in the purchase of arts and crafts produced by third world artisans. The goal of many of the organizations involved in Fair Trade is to provide quality handmade products at a reasonable price. This is possible because many of the organizations involved in fair trade are non-profit and the for-profit Fair Trade organizations are not adding an abnormal mark-up. The result is that the consumer does not have to sacrifice quality or pay a premium when they purchase Fair Trade products. An added benefit is knowing that their purchases help provide income and dignity to artisans in developing countries.


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