Why Fair Trade Makes a Difference, Despite Its Problems

why fair trade makes a difference

Over the last couple of years, it seems that search terms for “ethical” and “fair trade” have all but been replaced by the word, “sustainable.” Don’t get me wrong. Sustainability is super important and, for many, the term itself implies safety and good wages for workers in the supply chain. But I also think that there’s a growing stigma against focusing on ethics because it has been associated with Evangelicalism and a fraught history of mission work. This essay, originally published a few years ago, is an attempt to describe why fair trade is still worth considering in spite of its shortcomings.

Why Fair Trade Makes a Difference (Still)

As a white kid growing up in upper middle class Florida suburbs, my world, culturally speaking, was quite small.

There was one Jewish kid in classes with me and very few people of color. Partly due to Florida’s abysmal public education program, kids of different races were often grouped into different “tracks,” and thus had little opportunity to interact with one another.

The one exception to this was the Latinx community. In Bradenton, Florida, where I grew up, we were fortunate to have thriving Cuban and Mexican communities. My fourth grade teacher was originally from Cuba, and I will never forget the time she made black beans and rice for our class full of midwestern-born, southern-raised white kids. We begged for seconds and thirds. Her teacher’s aid was from Mexico – the parent of Miguel, a kid I secretly had a crush on in middle school – and they would talk about us in Spanish at the front of the class. They knew that we couldn’t understand what they were saying.

Still, due to racist housing regulations, the lasting impact of Jim Crow laws, and ongoing racial bias that affect the way society is segmented today, it is very easy as a financially secure white person in this county to live in spaces that support a kind of white identity that, because it doesn’t see anything other than whiteness, satisfies itself by proclaiming we’re living in a post-racial or color blind society.

When you literally don’t see other colors or communities – or when you see one or two people of color as tokens rather than as integrated members within your neighborhood – this assertion feels true.

But, of course, it’s not true. And for kids like me – who mostly interacted with marginalized communities only through church-based missions and religious outreach – there was always a dichotomy between “us,” the blessed ones, and “them,” the ones who, due to supposed “bad decisions” and “bad circumstances,” had become objects of aid rather than co-creators of community.

Fair Trade’s Gaps

There are an abundance of critiques against the fair trade movement, and most of them are valid. In case you didn’t know (I spoke with a journalist recently who didn’t know), the fair trade movement as it exists today was founded by a white American Mennonite woman named Edna Ruth Byler after she went on a mission trip to Puerto Rico in the 1940s (her organization, now an independent nonprofit, is now named Ten Thousand Villages).

Other religious and charity groups followed suit, and the idea of buying goods from poor artisans in developing countries to sell to financially secure do-gooders, predominantly white Christians and those reared within its particular value system, became not only a viable business model but a way of bridging traditionally Christian ideas of outreach with American and European values of Capitalism and free trade.

The fact that white people started the fair trade movement doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. But what it does mean is that the cultural, ideological, and historical assumptions that were built into its framework are missing important context. For one, Christian missions are, historically speaking, inextricably linked with Colonialism and Imperialism, which quite literally invade “foreign lands” with an assumption that the message its bringing is right.

On the ground, I’m sure that American and European missionaries have been profoundly humbled and changed by living alongside people they initially thought they were there to fix. But at a systems level, there’s no doubt that this model – which inherently frames good works as doing something TO someone rather than building something WITH someone – creates ample room for blind spots and immense cultural insensitivity that can lead to both cultural and literal death.

You can also see this heritage expressed in the way many fair trade brands market their products. Since artisans, predominantly people of color living in the Global South, are seen as the beneficiaries of aid, they are often portrayed in ways that highlight their foreignness or marginalization rather than with the authoritative posture of a business partner. Additionally, an unconscious white Christian bias shows its face in the way fair trade businesses (often, though not always) choose their models and environments. These two images have become so iconic within the niche that, if I asked you to picture a fair trade ad, you would likely describe either a person of color sitting in dirt or a white woman smiling back at you.

These two images not only serve to highlight the ways we have, both implicitly and explicitly, embraced oversimplified narratives of poverty and philanthropy. They leave out A LOT of people from the narrative altogether. In fact, they leave out everyone, because caricatures are not people. And so, when I see that people of color feel outraged and excluded, I cannot, if I’m being honest, feel surprised by this.

But I won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and this is why.

The fair trade movement is, for many people like me, an entryway into broader, more inclusive discussions on social justice. A white kid living in the suburbs in the south doesn’t have many entry points to wokeness. But the fair trade movement is largely seen as safe and non-controversial within Christian-centered and Christian-cultivated circles, and in this way holds an immense amount of potential to lead people to further questioning.

I credit the fair trade movement with orienting me toward every little bit of progressivism evident in my life today. And I will be the first to admit that I still have blind spots and false assumptions. My world is still, largely, white-washed. But if I hadn’t interacted with the fair trade movement, if I hadn’t been allowed to look at it with my own eyes and start to question it as a member of the community rather than a mere observer, I wouldn’t have had the context to continue to broaden my perspective.

There’s a lot of talk about “educating yourself” these days and, thanks to the internet, this is much more possible than it used to be. But I would argue that it’s pretty hard to get educated without some initial guidance. Sure, you can do a Google search, but what are your search terms?

Accessible entry points are imperative to movement-building. The fair trade movement is flawed, but I think it’s expansion and growing ability to self-critique as it interacts with other social justice communities and begins to address – with more intention – the ways it has harmed as well as helped the communities it partners with, can serve as a model of transformation.

  • Those of us who come from backgrounds of privilege and security should be thinking about how our messaging and imagery play into exploitative power differentials that oversimplify narratives of care and community.
  • And those of us who, at times, may feel empowered to the point of smugness by our relative wokeness should be examining our own willingness to oversimplify or caricaturize people for the sake of our own sense of rightness.

We should do these things because it honors the dignity of all people, and that is ultimately what the fair trade movement is about.

Fair trade’s history tells us a lot about the values this country holds up as sacred. But it also, in its small way, calls into question our obsession with unhindered Capitalism, acknowledging that economics without a soul leads to dehumanization. For this, I am thankful. And I am also ready to keep questioning, and to keep doing the work.

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Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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