Fair Trade - Putting the Planet and People First
Updated: Sep 24
Charles Dickens (1812-1870), one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian era, was also an adamant activist for social reform, just labor conditions, and children’s rights. The second of eight children, he spent three miserable years of his youth working in a shoe polish factory overrun by rats. The conditions were appalling with rotten floors and staircases, dirt and decay, and strenuous working conditions. His wages were six shillings a week (about $22 in today’s currency). As a young person, Dickens had no voice to object, but as an adult he was able to use his pen to fight back by exposing the ills of poverty and manufacturing to his large audience of readers. Similarly, modern-day advocates, such as Paul Rice, founder of Fair Trade USA, have harnessed the written word to create standards that govern the way trade can be effectively monitored across the world.
Fair Trade is a global movement that protects the rights of marginalized producers and workers in developing countries. Ethically and fairly operated businesses result in stronger communities and improved livelihoods. Fair Trade standards protect goods by requiring decent and safe working conditions, supporting economic well-being, advocating for gender equality, and preserving human rights. Fair Trade helps producers in developing countries achieve sustainable and equitable trade relationships through productive communication, transparency, and mutual respect.
Documentation of unfair labor practices dates back to 1156 B.C.E. when late payments for Egyptian tomb-builders and artisans caused an uprising. Workers lay down their tools and shouted, “We are hungry!” Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson notes “the system of paying the necropolis workers broke down altogether, prompting the earliest recorded strike in history (335).”
Sweatshops, factories where people are employed at low wages for long hours under socially unacceptable conditions, emerged in London and New York City during the mid-1800’s. Certain social and economic conditions were necessary in order for these workplaces to develop: unskilled laborers (often including children); management systems that neglected the human factor of labor; and, lack of accountability for poor working conditions (“Sweatshops,” Sheetz, 2013). Sweatshops typically produced garments, shoes, cigars, or artificial flowers. Modern-day developing countries house sweatshops as well. These environments can be crowded, dangerous, and climatically challenging.
During the 1990’s, Paul Rice, Yale graduate and Fair Trade USA founder, worked with coffee farmers in Nicaragua and became a specialist in rural economic and cooperative development. He founded the country’s first Fair Trade organic coffee export cooperative and within five years the cooperative grew from 24 families to more than 3,000. Rice returned to the United States after 11 years in Nicaragua to expand the market for Fair Trade growth. Fair Trade USA educated corporations on why it was important not only to sell more ethical products under Fair Trade terms, but also to use the Fair Trade seal on products to increase awareness and educate consumers. The certification process is rigorous, taking anywhere between 6-9 months to achieve Fair Trade Certified status (“Fair Trade,” Shoenthal, 2018).
Fair Trade USA has empowered more than 950,000 farmers and workers across 50+ countries and the organization works with more than 800 businesses. Purchases have sent $610 million to farmers and workers since 1998, including more than $400 million in Community Development Funds and $200 million as a result of Fair Trade Minimum Price which protects farmers from fluctuating market prices. More than 100 countries participate in the Fair Trade system and 40,000+ responsibly sourced products carry the Fair Trade certification in North America.
The Fair Trade movement has improved millions of lives around the world. For more information, please see: https://www.fairtradecertifie