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Three chains for change

The All’s Fair Wear-athon celebrates the way something as simple as shopping can change the world when we do it wisely.   The word  sweatshop needs to be seen for what it is: not simply low-paying work, but often a form of oppression that takes advantage of the poor and can even be a form of slavery.  The AFW seeks to grow a community that knows their buying power is a force for change, a community that respects and works for the dignity of the people in the global South who grow our food and make our clothes.

“How can my shopping make a difference?”

Be a ethical consumer. Buy things that actually help others as well as meeting our own needs. If economics is all about supply and demand, an ethical consumer creates a demand for goods that help the poor, the community and the environment. Ethical consumers  support the best supply chains.

A supply chain is how things get from where they are made or grown to where we buy them. So the farmer grows coffee, sells to an exporter, who sells to an importer, who sells to a roaster, who sells it to a grocery store, who sells it to you. You, the consumer, are the end of the supply chain. This is what gives you the power to make change. Some supply chains are indifferent to the suffering of the poor in developing nations, but others were built for the purpose of creating a more just relationship between the global North and South. Ethical consumers choose products and brands that support the better supply chains.

There are three supply chains worth knowing about, two of which focus on Fair Trade and the third focuses on fair labour practices.

  1. Fairtrade Certified products
  2. Fair Trade goods
  3. Fair Labor Association-affiliated companies

I will go into more detail on each of these supply chains in later postings.  Generally Fair Trade is a supply chain developed to help communities is the global South by partnering with them to make a living from what they grow or make.  It helps them build sustainable businesses and communities, where the funding for development comes from producers receiving a fair price for their goods, rather than government handouts or foreign charity.

Fairtrade Certified products
Fair Trade Certified products come from developing countries: coffee, tea, sugar, cocoa, bananas and other fresh fruit, honey, cotton, wine, chocolate, flowers and gold. Depending on where you live, you can find Fairtrade Certified products in grocery stores or specialty shops.

These goods are identified by the Fairtrade label, which certifies they have come through a rigorously audited supply chain that guarantees the farmers and labourers in the producing countries received a fair price for their goods. Fairtrade establishes a fair price based the cost of production, the cost of living and the cost of certification. So if the world market for coffee falls, Fair Trade farmers will still get a fair price.  Fairtrade farmers belong to co-operatives, which allows them to work better as a community.  For every pound of coffee the co-op sells into the Fairtrade supply chain, the co-op also receives a “premium,” a small amount of money to be used on community projects, such as building schools or medical clinics, creating their own export companies, establishing scholarships, etc.

So when you buy Fair Trade Certified products, even though they are a bit more expensive, you know you are investing in whole producer communities in the global South. Action item: Buy Fair Trade Certified goods instead of the cheaper products, and ask your favourite retailers to stock Fair Trade items that are not yet available locally. To find out what is available locally, check out Fairtrade Canada’s Fair Trade Finder page.

Fair Trade Goods
There is another Fair Trade network where the focus is not on certifying specific products but on the reputation of the whole company that sells the goods. You can find Fairtrade certified coffee in any grocery store, but the store itself is not Fair Trade. But Ten Thousand Villages is a store where everything is Fair Trade, even though there is no certification process. The company, which was developed solely for the purpose of giving Third World artisans more direct access to First World markets, has a reputation that guarantees the supply chain is working for the well-being of producers. Typically the producers are marginal communities in the Third World, and their involvement in Fair Trade reflects development projects by missions or agencies working to alleviate poverty.

The organization behind this network of producers and retailers is the World Fair Trade Organization, and one of the key WFTO bodies in North America is the Fair Trade Federation. Occasionally you can find goods imported by the Fair Trade Federation sold in local independent retailers. Action item: Patronize Ten Thousand Villages (a great place for buying exotic gifts) and stores you find carrying FTF goods, and invite your favourite local independent store to consider carrying FTF goods. They can find sources at the Fair Trade Federation site.

Fair Labor Association-affiliated companies
The Fair Labor Association provides regular clothing companies with a way of exercising greater control over factories in the global South where their goods are made. In the past, companies tried to avoid blame by saying they do not own the factories that make their goods, so they cannot control the labour conditions. But now, instead of avoiding responsibility, companies can make fair labour standards part of the production contract — if a factory wants to keep their contract with Nike, for example, they must meet the labour standards required by the contract. FLA-affiliated companies give the FLA the addresses of all the factories manufacturing for them. The FLA does random surprise audits of the factories, identifies any failure to meet the standards, and sets up a plan for the factory to improve its working conditions and keep the contract with the company.

You can support this effort to improve Third World working conditions by rewarding FLA-affiliated companies for doing the right thing. Get to know the labels and brands of these companies: Gildan, American Eagle, Nike, Adidas, etc. (If you think Nike is one of the bad guys, you have probably seen videos from 2004 — which hurt their sales so much that they straightened up their act.) You can learn more about the FLA at the Fair Labor Association website. To see the companies and brands affiliated with the FLA, see their Participating Companies. Action item: Get to know these labels and buy them whenever possible, and maybe even let them know that is why you buy their products.

Conclusion
When enough people buy through these three supply chains, companies will recognize there is a culture shift towards treating the global South right. When one British chain, the Co-op, went strictly to Fairtrade bananas, Dole lost $20 million in annual sales, prompting Dole to look for a source of Fair Trade bananas so that they could compete. In Europe, such pressure has forced companies with histories of labour abuse to seek some kind of ethical certification. When consumers care, companies care.