From malls to movies, restaurants to rainforests, the subtle nudge to pay it forward has been flexing its muscles and has grown increasingly aggressive over the years.
If our cultural karma was ever suspect, you would only have to look at the labels of our products and produce.
Good-for-all stickers, like infiltrating guerillas, have become rampant in our grocery stores, and little thrifty shops keep popping up around the corner.
We cannot really blame our capitalist economy for, well…capitalizing on the good vibes.
And real or imagined, we have all felt it: you buy organic food and just feel Father Time adding a few more grains into your hourglass. Or you walk out of the store with a fair-trade scarf and a pat on the back from the universe.
I will be the first to admit that I have even justified a purchase or two based on its fairness or greenery.
But what do these labels mean? Beyond the general feeling that these titles mean good– even toddlers know bad things are “no fair” – how well do consumers understand what they are buying?
These labels, in fact, empower the shopper more than we realize. You might ask, incredulously: How does an organic apple empower anything more than my nutrition? What is this grand empowerment you speak of? All my fair-trade coffee gives me is an energy boost.
Well, knowledge is power. Welcome to a crash course in consumerism.
So let’s project our preschool notion of “fair” onto the global economic playground.
We remember the kids who got bullied; laborers and farmers who produce our purchases have it even rougher than that last child picked.
They are often exploited, receiving only minimal revenue for their work – as little as a few cents from a $3 morning pick-me-up. It is harder for the consumer-bystander to help. We cannot just tell the bullies to stop or go tell the teacher.
The solution: trading fairly.
The fair trade movement got its start as far back as the 1940s, but did not really pick up momentum until the 80s.
Coffee was the first product to be certified as “fair trade” in 1988 with the first established Fair Trade organization, but was quickly followed by more organizations and a wide variety of products.
FINE, an informal alliance of the four major groups today, defines Fair Trade as “a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade.
It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.”
Basically, the international movement ensures that originators of that coffee or cute necklace get a fair deal. That deal includes a price that covers the cost of production and income.
It also is committed to ending child and forced labor and promotes “non-discrimination, gender equity and freedom of association,” according to the World Fair Trade Federation.
Along with sufficient payment, producers receive something called the “Fair Trade Premium.”
This money is put toward such community improvements as education or farm expansions via the democratic decisions of the farmers or workers. This translates into broader benefits than solely for the producer organization.
Fair Trade USA reports that currently “more than 1.2 million farming families in 70 developing countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America” are improving their quality of living through Fair Trade results.
If economics is a playground, then agriculture is arts and crafts.
Think of organic as, say, finger-painting, and everything else as paint-by-numbers. Where organic creates paintings the old-fashioned way from scratch, conventional production uses a plethora of shortcuts to make a picture. On the farms, that means the use chemical fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics and pesticides.
We are more acquainted with the booming $25 million organic market and the familiar United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification sticker than we are with fair trade.
The USDA bases its labeling on “approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”
Less than 1 percent of American farmland is certified organic, according to the Organic Consumers Association. And when something is scarce, it follows that the price tag is bigger.
“Organic…means something that is more expensive and healthy,” said Ellen Hayes ’14, reflecting the popular belief.
Yes, organic food does generally cost more, but that is due to a number of veiled outside factors that shoppers don’t see behind the price tag.
Organic farms are excluded from federal subsidies that conventional farmers receive. So that price tag is a more genuine record of the cost of its production. And where the cost is less, the tax-funded environmental cleanups that follow conventional production are empirically greater.
According to U.S. law, organic labels have to meet certain requirements. Conversely, fair-trade labels “are done by organizations that want to promote particular ends,” explains Dr. David Downie, the director of environmental studies at Fairfield University.
That means that not all fair trade products are organic. However, most regulators restrict the use of chemicals. The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is banned and environmental protection and conservation are often priorities.
Among these friendly faces of fair trade and USDA-certified labels, there are impostors. Retailers have taken to exploiting our good but blind intentions with highfalutin and hollow classifications.
“Natural” sounds like a better-than-average product, doesn’t it? Organic is natural, right? Yes and no. Organic is natural but not “natural.”
Like organic, “natural” foods don’t have additives or preservatives. But such specifics do little good when they can contain pesticide-grown or GMO ingredients.
This is because there are no policies to monitor “natural” label claims. Many retailers capitalize on the foggy nature of “natural” and sell such products at organic prices.
Another sketchy character, “free range,” is only regulated by the USDA if it is used to describe poultry. So, if any product other than chicken and eggs claims that it ranged free, like beef, it could very well be referring to the free-spirited nature of a confined cow.
Comparably, “free trade” can be easily misheard as “fair trade.” But, as opposed to fair trade, free trade is a two-century-old belief of some economists that government tariffs, asubsidies and policies should be eradicated from the market.
Generally, small-scale producers have suffered from free-trade effects, getting bullied by subsidized companies to lower prices to the point of unsustainable living.
You can spot the genuine article by its Fair Trade Mark or by checking if the company belongs to the International Federation of Alternative Trade (IFAT).
But what’s the big deal? None of this empowers me, you might say. Okay, none of this information imbues you with Samson strength, but both labels allow consumers to make more educated choices about what they buy.
They are two parts of a sum that is more sustainable than the prevailing practices.
“Both Organic and Fair Trade labels are important ways of addressing environmental and human rights issues in a capitalist market,” says Arturo Watts, on behalf of the Leaders of Environmental Action at Fairfield (LEAF).
They are “generally pretty good guideposts for people who want to make a buycott,” explains Downie.
No, that’s not a typo. A buycott is the opposite of a boycott, where consumers support products, processes or stores that they believe are doing the right thing.
In the name of support, people are willing to put down an extra pretty penny, or quarter… or dollar.
In “relatively wealthy countries” like the U.S., Western Europe or Japan, “buycotts can make a big difference because they provide an economic incentive, especially for small or medium-sized enterprises to do the right thing,” said Downie.
We can make a difference with our purchases. We can tip the scales of justice with each conscious dollar.
“Moving markets and production further in the direction of both by demanding more and more of the products that qualify as fair and organic is the way to go,” says Dr. Dina Franceschi, a Fairfield professor of environmental economics.
She said, “That way, availability of products and choices for consumers that satisfy these criteria will increase and prices for these products will begin to decrease, making it easier for all of us to make the ‘right’ choice!”
“Change must come from ‘dollar votes,’ increased consumer consciousness, and strong market alternatives,” directs LEAF. “Consumers of the world UNITE!”
Yes, let’s all raise our fists, clad with everything from hand-woven bracelets to Rolexes, with our credit cards in hand, and unite.