What is Fair Trade?

by Bonnie North

When you shop for products that are grown far, far away - stuff like coffee, chocolate or tea, have you ever noticed a special trademark, the Fair Trade trademark, on the labels of the items arrayed for your choosing?

Do you know what it signifies? An awful lot of folks don't.

Aid organizations like Briton's Oxfam, were among the first to promote the fair trade concept by enabling third world producers to sell their goods - usually handicrafts - directly to the Western consumer.

You saw this often in the "Third World boutiques" that became stylish in the 90s. These schemes did pull some families out of poverty by eliminating the tangled string of exploitative middlemen, international traders who typically each bought low and sold high, ramping up the final price of a country's export without truly benefiting the workers and growers who produced the actual goods.

But it was obvious that stronger, more encompassing programs were needed to bring a greater number of goods, and particularly export crops, to commercial manufacturers and to bring Fair Trade items into the supermarkets where most people shop.

The first Fair Trade consumer guarantee- the Max Havelaar Label - was launched in the Netherlands in 1989. TransFair USA, based in Oakland, California, began issuing the American Fair Trade label in 1999 as part of a consortium of 17 national Fair Trade labeling organizations in North America, Europe, and Japan.

The group's inspectors make annual visits to producers throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America to ensure that the producers operate democratically and use some of the Fair Trade premium for social, economic, or environmental projects.Many farmers around the world receive market payments that are lower than the actual costs of production, forcing them into a cycle of poverty and debt.

Intensive mono-cropping can also lead to pesticide pollution and deforestation.Fair Trade works to correct these imbalances by guaranteeing a minimum price for small producers' harvests and by encouraging organic and sustainable cultivation methods. Fair Trade farmers are provided badly needed credit. With the profits generated from receiving fair wages, farmers can invest in health, education, and environmental protection.

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