Rebecca Watts Hull
Outside of NDPC’s annual Alternative Gift Market, how can we “shop our values?” Fair Trade and alternative giving options have expanded significantly since the earliest, faith-based initiatives in the 1970s. According to Fair Trade America, sales of certified Fair Trade products surpassed $11 billion in 2018. At the same time, this explosion of options also can create confusion, and there certainly are many vendors that market social and environmental responsibility without the certification or evidence to back it up.
Fair Trade online
In the past decade the variety of Fair Trade clothing, bedding, and other items has expanded dramatically, including clothing lines of some mainstream retailers. While horrific tragedies like the 2012 fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh bring fleeting attention to “sweatshop” conditions, clothing retailers still do not have to disclose to consumers anything more than the country where the item is assembled. Fair Trade certification is one of the only tools we have for “shopping our values” when it comes to clothing. And today, due to a growing chorus of consumers demanding social and environmental responsibility, you can now find just about anything in your wardrobe from online retailers with Fair Trade certification. Try searching for the item you are looking for and also include “Fair Trade” in the search.
Certification is just one way of increasing transparency, and it works well for products that are produced a long way away from us. Thankfully, local businesses and farmers provide another form of transparency—the ability to actually see the places where goods are produced, talk with families and workers, and visit farms. In recent years, as the number of entrepreneurial businesses launched by Clarkston residents who came to the U.S. as refugees has grown rapidly, NDPC’s Alternative Gift Market has included more and more of these local vendors. This form of “shopping our values” relies on first-hand transparency, through relationships built by members of NDPC. A related approach, circulating in many circles as one step toward anti-racism, is choosing to patronize local, Black-owned businesses; an online search will turn up multiple lists of recommendations in and around Atlanta.
Vendors with claims not supported by third-party certification
The expansion of Fair Trade and sustainable products also has expanded “green-washing” and claims of social responsibility that do not hold up under scrutiny. Typically, a company that is deeply committed to Fair Trade principles and has the resources to create a sophisticated website will provide detailed information about their commitment on the site. Some businesses choose to pursue different forms of transparency rather than Fair Trade certification, such as through Direct Trade (look for evidence!) or by becoming a B Certified Corporation.
You will also find retailers who do not share that deep commitment but have figured out there are a lot of socially and environmentally conscious consumers. If there is no evidence of third-party certification on a website, consider reaching out directly and asking for specifics about labor practices and sustainability commitments. If there is no response or vague assurances, it is likely the case that their practices do not reach the threshold required for third-party certification.
Making purchasing decisions that align with our values has gotten a little easier, but it is still not nearly as straightforward as it could be. Until we can rely on greater transparency and consistently just and sustainable production standards around the world, Fair Trade and other forms of certification help us “shop our values.” We can do our best to take advantage of Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and other opportunities to better align our shopping with our values all year long, not just at the Alternative Gift Market in December. Happy gifting!
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