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Why Fair Trade? December 15 2011

Standing in the grocery store today, I spent at least five minutes silently debating whether I should buy the conventional light brown sugar or the Fair Trade and organic light brown sugar. The conventional was $1.29. The Fair Trade version was over $5.00. It seemed stupid to spend the extra money. I don't exactly rake in the cash as a writer and though I have enough to support myself, I still have to weigh my purchasing decisions and, quite frankly, spending five times the amount I would normally pay for sugar to make chocolate chip cookies seemed kind of idiotic.

But as I stood there, I couldn't help but ask myself what my decision would be if I were held accountable for every action and decision I make throughout the day? If I could see and interact with the sugar cane workers, would the decision to go with something that provides them with a better quality of life be so difficult?

No, probably not. My conscience wouldn't let me off the hook that easily.

Or what if the tables were turned? What if I were the one harvesting sugar cane, trying to scrape a living in an economically oppressive system? What if the difference between a Fair Trade wage and a conventional wage was the difference between me providing for my family or sending my children to school? Wouldn't I implore someone standing at the grocery store to make a choice that took into account my most basic human needs?

In the end, I bought the Fair Trade sugar. Yes, it was five times more expensive and that can be hard to justify if you don't look beyond what's on the shelf in front of you.

But is it fair and just to say that the best deal is simply the one that includes the lowest price point? What about all of the environmental and social costs? I paid more upfront for the Fair Trade sugar, but the conventional sugar is going to cost more over the long-term when you consider the costs of environmental degradation and the repercussions and inhumanity of social injustice.

Shouldn't business benefit everyone involved from start to finish? Relying on unsustainable production methods and an industry whose success is built and dependent upon the oppression of millions of people seems like the antithesis of good business.

Those industries are relying heavily on consumers who operate on an "out of sight, out of mind" purchasing philosophy. If that 10 year-old who stitched together a sweatshirt was standing next to the rack in the store, most consumers would think twice about buying it. If they could see the gallons of toxic chemicals used to produce their conventional cotton t-shirts, they'd likely feel some degree of hesitation before buying them.

Unfortunately, consumer ignorance is enabling devastating business practices and a consumer's decision to support a company that is taking advantage of loose labor or environmental laws is having a tremendously negative impact on someone else's life. You may be against child labor, human trafficking, or environmental degradation, but if you're not aware of your purchasing decisions, you may be inadvertently enabling all of the above.

On the flip side, that same purchasing power can change the face of business. By supporting ethical production methods, you can make humane business practices the norm rather than the exception.

I know the sugar example is a little extreme, and that many of us simply cannot afford to pay two or three times or heaven forbid five times as much for Fair Trade products. Trust me, I put the Fair Trade sugar back on the shelf multiple times before throwing it in my basket and heading to the checkout line. And I know that it's easy to scoff at the idea that Fair Trade is the end all, be all of social justice. It's not. It's simply somewhere to start. Imagining the person harvesting the sugar I was about to purchase brought it home for me. It wasn't about guilt. It was about awareness. It was the realization that even the smallest of my decisions impact someone else. I'd rather have that impact be a positive one.

I'm not arguing that paying $5 for Fair Trade, organic sugar is going to be a quick fix or an easy solution. It's not going to wipe away all of the social injustice, end poverty, stop human trafficking, or prevent environmental degradation in one, fell swoop. However, by making consumers aware of the many despicable production practices currently in use, we can start to put pressure on industries to be accountable, responsible, and ethical in all of their transactions. I, for one, would rather that companies like Gap and Apple spend less on advertising and more on treating people fairly.