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FAIR TRADE SHOPPING
FOR CONSCIENTIOUS CONSUMERS

A third of the world's population,1.3 billion people, survives on less than $1 a day; 70% of those people are female. The onslaught of cheap goods flooding the United States marketplace creates a vast array of choices for Americans. Many consumers rarely give a second thought to the origin of their products. People tend to get excited about "bargains" even though it might mean the clothes, coffee, or rugs they desire are being produced under exploitative conditions where workers earn extremely substandard wages. These "deals" end up being very costly to laborers in developing countries.

Governments Make Trade Deals in Secret

Recently there has been much press given to governmental contracts that aid in loosening trade restrictions. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Fair Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), to mention only a few, entice large corporations to employ cheap labor in developing parts of the world such as Central and South America thereby expanding the trend of globalization. Many of these policies and trade agreements are conducted in secret without public consent. Some argue this is simply supply and demand economics; survival of the fittest that makes financial sense for companies motivated by profits. But there are social ramifications that stem out of these international business deals.

Protests Against Globalization

Workers continue to toil in hazardous conditions and are paid pennies on the dollar for their efforts. Additionally, there are a myriad of environmental injustices being played out as corporations sidestep their own countries' green laws to exploit the lands of others. Some of these social dilemmas are reaching the mainstream media evident by the coverage of the public protests in Seattle in 1999 against the WTO and the 2001 protest in Quebec against the FTAA. Protests are definitely one way concerned citizens can voice their support for sustainable labor and environmental practices. Other ways people can cast their vote is by buying products that help to advance the welfare of workers instead of exploiting them.

Fair Trade Products Help Combat Exploitative Labor Practices

Conscious consumerism in the form of fair trade is gaining new popularity in the United States. The fair trade movement is already well established in some European countries and Great Britain where consumers are alerted to fair trade products from a stamp of authenticity from various labeling initiatives. Members of the Fairtrade Labelling Organization (FLO), including California based TransFair USA, license primarily agricultural items such as coffee in an effort to ensure farmers receive fair prices for their produce.

A product that claims to be fair trade ensures the consumer that the artist or farmer who is responsible for creating or harvesting the product receives a fair wage for his/her effort while working in a safe environment. The main objective of alternative trade organizations is not solely to make a profit. To these organizations "fair trade means that trading partnerships are based on reciprocal benefits and mutual respect; that prices paid to producers reflect the work they do; that workers have the right to organize; that national health, safety, and wage laws are enforced; and that products are environmentally sustainable and conserve natural resources."2 Many fair trade companies and nonprofits help propel workers beyond poverty by providing education and health care assistance.

Women's Co-op in Thailand Sustains Workers through Fair Trade

One nonprofit organization that assists workers in obtaining a sustainable standard of living is the Women's Education for Advancement and Empowerment (WEAVE). This group works in conjunction with ethnic minorities with special attention paid to the Karen and Karenni women of Burma. According to Kristen A. Beifus, Income Generation Coordinator, WEAVE's mission is to give women the "opportunity to improve themselves; through education, confidence building, skill development and empowerment believing that the development of women's status benefits the whole community." There are currently over 120,000 people residing in crowded refugee camps scattered along the Thai-Burma border who have fled political oppression from their native Burma. These families living in exile have few means to support themselves and are prey to labor exploitation. In fact, according to Beifus, Karen and Karenni refugee women are often " victims of exploitation by factory owners and arbitrary arrest." Women receive less pay than men for similar agricultural labor despite the fact that they are responsible for the majority of household duties and are frequently the main source of income.

Weaving and Other Handicrafts Help Refugees Eke Out a Living Wage

The plight of these refugee women is even more taxing because they are seen as migrant workers and find it extremely difficult to secure non-exploitative work. The women of WEAVE turn to their native art to help them eke out a living and to provide basic health and welfare for their families. Handicrafts are more than just tradition passed down from mother to daughter. These handmade products are the vital lifeblood for thousands of women in developing countries.

A Burmese refugee usually takes an entire month to weave an embroidered wall hanging according to Beifus. It first takes her a week to weave the thread into fabric and then she spends the next three weeks embroidering and sewing the material. Finding time to weave amidst other daily chores such as fetching water from the local well, preparing all family meals, feeding pigs and other animals, helping children with homework, and learning the language of a new country can be challenging. But when you combine these duties with the physical and emotional stress of living in a refugee camp and the realization that you are the sole earner for a family of five children and an elderly relative, your existence can seem grim. WEAVE helps to combat this oppression by offering refugee women various resources for education and health through their Child Development, Health and Income Generation projects.

Fair Trade Organizations Assist with Education and Health Needs

WEAVE's Health Project educates refugees on HIV/AIDS awareness, family planning, adolescence and sexual health, personal hygiene, and nutrition. Additionally, they work in conjunction with a local clinic to provide training for primary health care workers and traditional birth attendants. Some of the Child Development Project assistance includes running nursery schools, and conducting teacher training. The Income Generation Project's "primary goal is to provide safe employment opportunities for women, enabling them to use traditional craft-making skills to provide resources for themselves and their families (while being) able to keep their income and expertise in their communities through savings schemes as well as investments in trainings including language classes, sewing and weaving."

Getting Fair Trade Goods to Market

Ensuring low-income workers, like the women of WEAVE, receive fair wages means fair trade companies have to locate viable markets; conscious retailers and wholesalers who believe in advocating fair trade by paying fair prices for products. Fair trade manufacturers work diligently to locate markets that will support their efforts. In years past this has been a difficult task but pressures are starting to ease with the popularity of fair trade escalating. In fact some would say that this year was a fair trade revolution evident by the surge of awareness of two distinctly modern phenomena: e-commerce and the gourmet coffee boom.

"In this era of online shopping," says Cheryl Musch, Executive Director of the national Fair Trade Federation, "consumers can search for their dream gift or household ornament without being limited by where they live." Whether it is a Burmese textured cream shawl hand woven by the women of WEAVE, or colorful flowered sarongs from Indonesia, conscious consumers will be surprised by the vast assortment of ethical products they can find online.

Combat Labor Oppression Through Buying Power

Educated consumers have a great deal of power in combating labor oppression simply by the items they purchase. Choice in the marketplace allows consumers to express their convictions. Purchasing ethical products is a powerful tool toward promoting conscious consumerism and helping craftspeople like the women of WEAVE. Concerned Americans realize fair trade purchases help build sustainable livelihoods for low-income workers, ward off injustices of labor exploitation in developing countries and add a greater sense of fulfillment to the shopping experience.

Written by: Heather Hester


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