The meaning of fair trade

While writing a story about fair-trade chocolate for Thursday’s newspaper, I spent a considerable amount of time debating the language. The term “fair trade” is a well-known concept, similar to “green” and even “heart-healthy,” but my concern lies with the loaded word “fair.”

What I consider fair and what you consider fair could differ completely. While several people might consider it fair to buy from artisans in other areas of the world, others might disagree. Besides, how can one international organization determine what’s fair for everyone in the world?

In the story, I decided to use the term fair trade after exchanging a series of e-mails with Kristi Turner, the shelter director at the Rainbow House in Columbia. Turner’s story was very touching. With her permission, I’m including some of it below (with her photos, as well), straight from an e-mail (with minor edits) that she sent me:

Photo by Kristi Turner (02/03/09)
Click the photo to see some of Turner’s photos from her trip to Ghana.

In 2009, I spent about two weeks in Ghana, West Africa, with my church Christian Chapel. We spent a day at Lake Volta (the largest man-made lake in the world) and visited children who are slaves to fishermen. Because of the poverty in Ghana, parents sell their children into this forced labor. The children become valued as a source of immediate income for the parents and cheap labor for the master. My heart truly broke for these young children (some 3 or 4 years old), who spend nearly entire days on fishing boats and are lucky to get one meal a day. Many of the children die when they are forced to untangle nets below the surface of the water. The kids we saw were very malnourished, dehydrated and looked very scared and hopeless. After spending a few hours in a small boat on the lake, we visited islands where the children live. There is such a different feeling on the islands than at other villages we visited. The children are poor in both places, but in Basyonde and Bongo Soe the children are free to play and free to go to school. However, on Lake Volta they are modern-day slaves!

We met a man named George Archibra who works with the masters and encourages them to free the children. He and his team are creating a program to help the masters by providing micro-loans, teaching them skills and paying for their own children to go to school. Pastor John and George talked to some of the masters. George said they freed a few children a couple of weeks before we arrived and were planning to free some later that week. We also visited a safe house where these children who are rescued go. This was a place where the kids are free to play and go to school! I spent time with one girl named Christiana. The staff said she was just rescued weeks before and was very scared and withdrawn. However, she has changed so much since being there. I played with her and rejoiced as she laughed! There was a little boy, full of energy-his name was Freeman which I thought was fitting! I will never the faces of the children on the lake or the faces of Christiana, Freeman and the other children at the safe house.

I had heard stories about children being involved in labor and sex slavery in various parts of the world; however, seeing this with my own eyes was sobering. I have worked with abused kids in the United States for nearly ten years so I am used to hearing stories of abuse that would make most people sick. However, what I saw on Lake Volta was beyond horrible and even brought tears to my eyes! Children should not be forced into labor or sex slavery. They should be free to play, free to go to school, and free to enjoy being a child!

This story doesn’t change the difficulty in using the term “fair” when referring to fair trade, but I think we all can agree that it is unfair for these fishermen to be profiting while using slave labor. But I wish our consumer choices could be so cut and dry, but, unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There’s a huge gray area.

When dealing with most agricultural products (coffee, chocolate, sugar, tea, vanilla, etc):

As you can tell, it’s not an easy process. Just because a shop isn’t selling fair-trade goods doesn’t mean it’s supporting slave labor. Patric Chocolate in Columbia, for instance, pays more than the price set by fair trade standards for its premium cocoa, owner Alan McClure said. If you buy a Hershey bar, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re giving your money to human traffickers, either. Deciding whether to buy fair-trade products is another issue that we, as consumers, need to examine closely and come to our determinations based on what we find.

If anyone has further questions on the issue, I can put you in touch with the right people or send you the right links. Just drop me an e-mail.

3 Responses to “The meaning of fair trade”

  1. Extremely informative and touching. It’s sad to see that children are forced to live and work in such dangerous conditions all over the world, whether for fishermen, in factories or in homes as personal servants.

    I am happy to see that journalists like you are taking on the issue of fair trade and questioning its validity on a global scale. I only hope others in the media will follow your lead. Maybe then people will begin to actually understand it.

  2. Thank you for an interesting post and article.

    You’re absolutely right about the complexity of ‘fair’ and ‘fair trade’.

    Global Fayre is a member of the Fair Trade Federation (there is no form of certification from the FTF; membership applications are screened by a blind panel of existing members who seek to ensure that applicants meet the values and principles laid out by the FTF).

    There is a key difference between a product being certified as fair trade and and organization being a member of something like the Fair Trade Federation; the former gives no indication as to the values and principles of the various organizations that have been involved in bringing the product to market (although of course a fair price has been paid for applicable ingredients) whereas an organization that has commited wholly to Fair Trade is saying much more about how they operate and the social values they subscribe to.

    Aside from the FTF website that you referenced, I would encourage you to check out the Fair Trade Resource Network ( These and other links can be found our our own site (

    Thank you again for highlighting Fair Trade!

  3. I forgot to mention – you have a great Fair Trade store right there in Columbia – called the Mustard Seed!

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