Fair Trade is Fair

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Fair Trade coffee

I have written a lot about green building and how the materials in a home or business must be sustainably produced. Besides a home being energy efficient when it is complete, building materials must come through an environmentally conscious supply chain. For example, timber must be sustainably harvested, milled with little waste and transported close to home to be considered ‘green’. CO2 emissions, waste and recycling are considerations for each step along the way.

I thought of this process when I was recently gifted with a can of organic Fair Trade coffee. The idea of a conscious supply chain is in place, but it is related to people, not things. It’s about human rights.

A brief history of fair trade and alternate consumer models

In 1946, Edna Ruth Byler traveled to Puerto Rico. She visited women needlework artisans who could barely make a living. She bought up their craftwork, took it home to Pennsylvania and sold it to friends and family. This was the beginning of the Fair Trade movement putting artisans in direct contact with buyers.

Byler’s efforts became a retail store, which, after many transformations, is now called Ten Thousand Villages. It is still operating in Pennsylvania and has expanded to an online store and a network of brick and mortar stores around North America.

Producers of goods are the main focus

Instead of artisans and farmers being the smallest part of the supply chain, they become the main focus. Producers set the prices for their products fairly based on labor and materials. This allows their workers to afford shelter, food and medical care, things we take for granted here in the US. Economically disadvantaged people in developing countries do not have their basic needs met. With fair pay for labor, this can be remedied and empower a whole community.

Producers make their own decisions, and women are paid the same as men. There is no discrimination, no child labor or exploitation and no sweatshops. Production must be sustainable through the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. These are policies that producers are required to follow.

What is a fair trade co-op?

A co-op is formed where producers can get their goods to a Fair Trade distributor, which is how they get into stores and restaurants and ultimately into the hands of consumers. There are fewer steps between producer and consumer, which puts more money into the hands of artisans and farmers.

The sellers in North America are also required to adhere to a certain set of policies. They must commit to a long-term relationship with the economically disadvantaged. Their goal is to help them become financially independent through interest-free loans and/or advance payment with favorable terms, sharing marketing information and promoting Fair Trade. Sellers must respect cultural traditions and help create positive change within them.


Both sides must be transparent about their activities. Communication between sellers and producers is imperative to keep the process open, honest and fruitful.

The point of Fair Trade is to alleviate poverty and create sustainable development in third world countries. You can support this cause and help hundreds of artisans and farmers around the world by purchasing Fair Trade Certified goods.

As I was slurping down my second cup of Fair Trade coffee this morning, I decided to go down to our local Fair Trade store to buy more when this can is empty. Not only is it organic and delicious, I’ll be helping out a coffee farming co-operative in Peru. So it tastes good AND feels good! I can drink my coffee with a clear conscience.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.