There is an ongoing debate within my circle of friends about whether Austin is a truly “hippie” town, or if it is merely “hipster,” and the [aggravation caused by an influx of people and traffic for the] South by Southwest music festival intensified the argument last week. The live music capital of the world prides itself on offering vegetarian and vegan options at every restaurant (e.g. tofu tacos at Mexican restaurants), boasts avid cycling and recycling communities, and even has green and eco-friendly furniture shops and dry cleaning establishments. As a coffee lover, though, what stands out most to me is that every independent coffee shop carries as much fair trade coffee, tea, and chocolate as it can cram into its menu (though it should be noted that this is a trend among coffee shops in general, no matter where they are). Whether genuine or for show, Austin is as eco-hip as they come.
While I appreciate the emphasis on sustainability, I wonder if it overshadows fair trade’s emphasis on improving the lives and livelihoods of the farmers and artisans it serves. While many are aware of its emphasis on sustainable agriculture and organic farming methods, perhaps less known is the fact that it can help improve infrastructure, provide education, empower farmers, and improve health care for fair trade producers and their communities.
Fair trade producers typically work (and may even live) in organized co-operatives that may or may not be linked to a particular company or organization. Products with a “fair trade” label have been certified by that organization to have been produced ethically (i.e. guaranteeing basic human rights, without child and slave labor, in a manner that protects the environment, allowing workers to unionize, etc.) and to have been purchased at a price that covers the cost of production. (TransFair USA’s criteria can be found here.) In addition to ensuring wage and practice requirements, fair trade organizations collect a small amount of the profits generated from product sales into a “social premium,” or a fund for community development. Producers meet regularly to decide how to invest these funds. Many fair trade communities choose to build a clinic to provide basic health services to residents, or schools to better educate their children (or sometimes both). One wine co-op from Chile, with 1,400 families, established a fund to assist with medical needs, including hospitalization, medicine, house calls for those who cannot travel, and maternal, psychiatric, and dental care for residents. A cocoa-growing community in Côte d’Ivoire used their earnings to build a small health clinic with four providers and an ambulance. Before the clinic was built, the nearest health facility was ten kilometers away, and 30 farmers died each year of treatable diseases; now, the clinic performs approximately 36 life-saving operations in the community each year.
Impact studies have found that fair trade participants have been able to increase gross household income, which allows them to better feed and educate their children, and can even provide an economic boost the surrounding community as a result. Their economic vulnerability to commodity prices is also reduced, and some studies have noted drops in child mortality. One of the most important fruits of these fair trade co-ops, however, is empowerment: farmers gain the ability to diversify their production and improve the quality of their products, they have a say in the development of their communities, and they can even gain political influence in their communities.
While the economic implications of fair trade are still the subject of intense debate, participation in fair-trade co-ops gives farmers the control over their businesses and livelihoods of which they are too often robbed under typical trade structures. It encourages more environmentally sustainable farming practices, and it gives us a warm fuzzy feeling when we buy coffee, tea, or chocolate (or even clothes and accessories). Who wouldn’t want to feel like they were helping the poor and the planet while sipping their cappuccino?