TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Buy Local vs. Fair Trade: An Ethical Shopper’s Dilemma

Buy Local? Support Fair Trade? What to do?

by Tex Dworkin, Global Exchange Director of Marketing

Another gift giving season is upon us and it’s time to decide on a shopping strategy. In one ear you’re encouraged to shop locally, in the other ear you hear about the benefits of choosing Fair Trade gifts. So which strategy is best, and is one better than the other? To answer a question with a question, who says you have to choose? The ‘Buy Local’ and Fair Trade movements both have their benefits.
One World, Many Cultures Gift Basket

One way to honor the bumper sticker mantra “Think Globally Act Locally” is to support your local businesses. Why buy cheese from Europe when there’s a dairy farm down the road producing double creamy Gouda that will knock your socks off? Buying local refers to choosing locally made products and soliciting locally owned businesses, which have environmental and social benefits. Products made locally have a smaller carbon footprint than products shipped from overseas, and thus are less of a strain on the environment. Shoppers who buy locally travel less distances to shop, which also reduces the carbon footprint. Local businesses produce more income and jobs for local communities than large retail chains do, and are more likely to utilize local services, such as advertising and banking. Supporting local businesses preserves the economic diversity of our communities and the unique character of our neighborhoods.

Rwandan Peace Ornaments

Sounds great, right? But what about choosing Fair Trade, another moral purchasing strategy?

Fair Trade is an economic model that ensures products are made by producers who receive a living wage, work in healthy, safe conditions and in many cases, employ environmentally sustainable processes. Fair Trade also tackles the issue of child slavery by guaranteeing that there is no abuse of child labor.
Knits from Nepal

In a world economy where globalization is king and profits are queen, small-scale producers are left without resources or hope for their future. Children are forced to work instead of receiving an education and local environments suffer from the ‘profits now’ mentality that damage environments for future generations. Fair Trade helps exploited producers escape from this vicious cycle of poverty. The Fair Trade system benefits over 800,000 Farmers organized into cooperatives and unions in 48 countries. Revenue from Fair Trade cooperatives is used on a variety of community projects, including training of producers in organic and sustainable farming techniques, building houses, schools and clinics and guaranteeing health care for the whole community.

So now it’s time to decide…buy local or Fair Trade? It’s important to note that choosing Fair Trade products can actually help your local merchants survive in this sluggish economy. Prices for cheap imports made in sweatshop factories outside of the US are usually so low that local merchants have difficulty competing on price. So during a time when consumers are looking to cut costs wherever possible, cheap knock offs made in sweatshops often outsell locally made products, even though the quality is drastically lower.

Kippot, Jewish Head Coverings

Whichever you decide, the good news is that the ‘Buy Local’ and Fair Trade movements both have tremendous benefits. They support environmentally sustainable solutions, and layers of middlemen are left out of each economic model, helping to ensure that a fair percentage of profits actually reach the producers. Fair Trade and locally made products are often handcrafted with care, resulting in a higher quality product than the mass-produced sweatshop products available in big box stores, and in both cases, the preservation of cultural heritage is a by-product of doing business.

If you’re married to the idea of buying locally, remember that some items are not grown locally, like cocoa. Cocoa trees are only grown in tropical regions of Africa, Asia, South and Central America. So if you’re looking for socially conscious chocolate in the US, consider chocolate made locally with Fair Trade Certified cocoa. That way, you can support your local chocolate maker AND Fair Trade cocoa producers around the world.

Beyond chocolate, there are lots of other instances where products from the Fair Trade and Buy Local movements are harmoniously combined to create special products all their own. One example is from Handmade Expressions, a sourcing partner for socially and environmentally responsible products based in Austin, Texas. They sell their handmade copper alloy bells to local artists who incorporate the ethically produced crafts into their artwork that is then sold locally.

Eco-Globe String Lights

Some proponents of the buy local movement consider choosing Fair Trade products an ethical challenge because products imported to the US have a bigger carbon footprint than locally produced products. In an op-ed piece for Western M, Steve Brooks, the acting head of Oxfam Cymru points out that “if everyone in the United Kingdom switched one 100W light bulb to a low energy equivalent, CO² emissions would be reduced in one year by 4.7 times the amount saved by boycotting fresh fruit and vegetables from sub-Saharan Africa.” If this is true, then perhaps the carbon footprint issue is not such a big deal after all. If you’re not buying that, and you’re shopping for a coffee lover, consider Grounds for Change, the first coffee roaster in the nation to complete the rigorous third-party certification process necessary to obtain the CarbonFree® Certified Product label. To get a product certified CarbonFree®, a company must submit the item to a third-party process that formally scrutinizes the carbon emissions associated with every step in production from the country of origin to your cup.

Hmong Ornaments

Whether you choose local or Fair Trade products or a combination of the two this holiday, what’s most important is to shift your spending from mass produced products made in sweatshops to ethically produced products. According to the US Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce, US retail e-commerce sales reached $29.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2006, and e-commerce sales accounted for just 2.8% of total retail sales, so you do the math. That’s a lot of dough! Wal-Mart alone reported $340 billion of sales revenue back in their 2006 financial report. Yet the Fair Trade Federation, the US’s network of Fair Trade businesses, reported $160+ million in total member sales in 2006, a tiny crumb compared to the overall US retail pie. If just 5% of US Wal-Mart customers shift their spending to Fair Trade products this holiday season, imagine the positive impact it could have on our environment and producers’ lives?

In November 2008 a McNeil/Lehrer report estimated US retail spending at 55 billion dollars. How much of that spending is on ethically produced products is up to you, so this holiday, remember that it’s not about buying more, but rather buying differently, and every dollar you spend is a statement about how you want this world to be.

Note: All of the products shown in this post have been made following fair trade guidelines and can be found in the Global Exchange online store.


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  1. Your Blog on Central Asian Textileshas very beautifully defined the various types of Central Asian Textiles which is very knowledgeable for me as I have a great interest in the various kinds of Central Asian Textiles. Similar to your article is a website named http://www.uzbekalive.com that is offering a variety of hand dyed Online Fabric Store which looks really beautiful. There is a wide variety of Central Asian Textiles which is really commendable! The colors, designs, Patters of the fabrics are really heart throbbing.

  2. This Fair Trade article you've written is such a good read & very informative. Thankyou Rayela!


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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