OK, let’s talk about Fair Trade products. If you’re unfamiliar with the term Fair Trade, it is a label given to products that are responsibly produced. Typically these products are produced outside the United States, and have to comply with specific labor and environmental regulations in order to qualify.
For the majority of people, purchasing fair trade products is a matter of social justice. When purchasing, you can be certain that the product was produced by workers earning a fair wage, in a favorable working environment. This means that whatever you buy was NOT produced in a Malaysian sweatshop, or assembled by young children earning $1 a day, or any of the other abysmal conditions facing so many foreign workers.
So obviously, purchasing certified Fair Trade products is good for the world. However, just because something is Fair Trade does not mean that it is necessarily greener.
Yes, products do have to pass environmental regulations set by the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, but those regulations can be vague. Often times, the production of fair trade products is greener than the production of other products (thanks to the regulations). But because Fair Trade products by nature are imported, there is often a hefty environmental cost associated with the transportation of those goods.
So while, yes, your Fair Trade Colombian coffee is great for the workers who picked and roasted the coffee beans, it’s not necessarily a boost for the environment.
Does that mean that you shouldn’t buy them? Of course not. It’s important to support human labor rights but buying fair trade goods. But when you do, keep in mind that the work of saving the planet is still left to do.
For example, all of the things that have to be shipped great distance anyway (like coffee, chocolate, etc.) should be bought under the Fair Trade Label – that way you aren’t adding any environmental impact, but still get the benefits. For all other goods (like produce, meats, and cheeses) you should buy organic and local. The odds are that your smaller, local vendor has pretty good labor standards, and reduces environmental impact by reducing the amount of transportation needed. In case you need a reminder on why to buy local, check out our previous post.