Shopping for fairer global trade

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2007, 12:00am

Consumers with a conscience can now buy products designed to support people in developing countries

You may have heard of Fairtrade coffee and Fairtrade chocolate, but have you ever bought any?

The idea of Fairtrade has spread from food and drink to whole towns and even universities.

After years of hard work by Oxfam and small local charity shops, Fairtrade products are slowly infiltrating conventional supermarkets in Hong Kong.

The first product to receive the Fairtrade label was coffee beans from Guatemala, but the number of available items has grown considerably and now includes honey, cotton, fruit and vegetables.

While these products, designed for the consumer with a conscience, are still limited to smaller stores or corners of some supermarkets in Hong Kong, they are flourishing in western countries.

Last year, Fairtrade sales were estimated to have reached #1.6 billion worldwide.

And the concept has extended from individual products to a whole community.

Garstang, a small town in the UK with only a few thousand inhabitants, made history in 2000 when it declared itself the world's first Fairtrade town. The innovative move soon spurred others to follow suit.

In the UK alone, there are more than 250 Fairtrade towns with another 200 more waiting for certification and, in the US, October was declared Fairtrade month.

Community-minded students have also triggered similar campaigns worldwide and persuaded their institutes to achieve Fairtrade status.

The root of the fair trade movement lies with people in wealthy countries becoming aware of a need to correct the global wealth imbalance.

The concept of trading has existed for thousands of years but in the modern world it is much more complex than exchanging a sack of rice for a jar of honey.

Thanks to technology, global transportation of goods is much faster and has allowed the pace of globalisation to accelerate.

International companies have long paid low prices to produce or buy raw materials in developing countries in order to maximise profits.

Though some claim that they have brought job opportunities and positive developments to these countries, some charity workers disagree and say that the workers' (primary producers) lack of bargaining power has resulted in an unequal trade balance. A lot of workers in impoverished nations barely earn enough to support themselves.

While coffee bean growers, for instance, only earn a few dollars a for a full day's hard work, people in wealthy cities pay more than a farmer's daily salary for a cup of coffee.

Many workers in developing nations are exploited and risk injury, with some even having limbs amputated due to poor health and safety. In recent years, the World Trade Organisation has promoted free trade, but many critics believe it actually increases the gap between rich and poor.

Free trade is the concept of trade without restrictions. However, it also allows richer countries to dump surplus crops - which are often subsided by their governments - at low prices on poor regions.

As a result, farmers who do not receive government subsidies find it difficult to secure customers because of cheap imports.

Current international trading systems seem to deprive the most impoverished workers but fair trade - a trading partnership between producers and buyers to seek equity in international trade - may be the solution to eradicating poverty.

Unlike providing financial aid to governments or communities, fair trade allows people to be paid a reasonable price for their work and earn an acceptable living.

The concept of a fair trade movement was first discussed in the late 1960s.

The first batch of fair trade coffee was exported from Guatemala to Europe in 1973. It aimed to protect the coffee bean growers from being exploited by buying their products at reasonable prices.

But it was not until 1997 that the movement began to gain momentum and receive global media attention.

This was when the Fairtrade trademark was established. It was designed to easily identify fair trade products - which have to undergo a serious of inspections from regional organisations recognised by Fairtrade before they can add the official logo.

The fair trade movement shows no signs of slowing as it has extended beyond crops to products such as jewellery, toys and clothing.

Rock star Bono's wife, Ali Hewson, launched a fair trade clothing line called Edun earlier this year. She says it is a 'project for social development' and that the aim of the venture is to stop people exploiting child labour.

The fair trade concept also extends to reasonable working hours and environments, pledges to set up community projects and union protection.

The movement has been given further publicity by successful Hollywood films such as Blood Diamond, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and highlighted the plight of miners working with conflict diamonds.

Millions of disadvantaged people have benefited from fair trade, however, there is still much more to be done to make the world a fair place to live in.

Last year Fairtrade sales were estimated to have reached GBP1.6 billion worldwide