We live in an era of increasing globalization, driven by an economic movement that promotes international free trade in an effort to reduce costs. However, this has the effect of sometimes driving down the value of people’s work (especially in the Third World) to a point where they live in virtual slavery and cannot see any hope for bettering their condition. Enter the Fair Trade movement.
The basic premise of the Fair Trade movement is that people deserve a fair wage for their work, something which is at the heart of Catholic social teaching. A fair wage is a wage which allows a person to support him/herself and his/her family, in order to both survive and have the opportunity to culturally enhance his/her natural gifts (in essence, the right to be able to progress in life). This “access to opportunity” can be in the form of education, or it can be in the form of access to capital, or it can be in the form of certain cultural rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, etc. A below-subsistence wage is not a fair wage. A mere-subsistence wage is not a fair wage. A wage that allows some sort of surplus but which is so uncertain that it forces an unfairly high savings rate so as to create a “cushion” against future problems, is unfair. But a wage which gives you enough of a leg-up to be able (in solidarity with others) to create a positive feedback loop and improve your life, is a fair wage.
Businesses operating on Fair Trade principles try to help farmers attain a fair wage by purchasing their produce from them at a price that would guarantee a fair wage. They then resell these products (such as coffee) in the First World, but with a certain branding that identifies them as a Fair Trade product. By undertaking Fair Trade business practices, these businesses become eligible to apply to use a special trademarked symbol on their product packaging.
If you see one of these labels on a bag of coffee, or tea, or some other product, you can be assured that the business providing that product has had their business practices audited and that they, in fact, do guarantee a fair wage is being paid at all levels of the supply chain.
There are some barriers to the success of Fair Trade, however. First of all, the products cost more. This is mainly due to lack of volume. However, not everyone knows about the benefits of Fair Trade, and the symbol is not yet hugely recognized, so not that many people know why they should pay slightly higher prices for what appears to be just regular coffee or tea. This means other distribution channels become necessary….and explains why you may have “Fair Trade” coffee on sale in your church after Mass. But knowledge of the Fair Trade movement becomes more widespread and recognition of the Fair Trade label increases, volume should also increase and prices decrease — and all the while the original farmers will be earning their fair wage.
We are all called to stewardship of our money, and this means more than just giving to the Church — it also means, when we do spend it, spending our money in a way that would help build the Kingdom. We are also called to a stewardship of our time and talents, and learning more about Fair Trade is an excellent way to use our time and grow our knowledge. Check out this link for Transfair USA (the ones who certify based on the logo I put in this article) to learn more about the movement and see how you can get involved.