I started buying fair trade years ago, when fair trade coffee first became available. I wasn't making much money at the time, but I'd travelled the world, and had seen the living conditions. I knew most people in the second world lived a life less affluent than mine, never mind the third world.
At the time I had the impression, which has been reinforced by my travels since, that agricultural workers in third world countries had fewer options than most. Poor, undereducated, with no possibility of creating change. How much money did I need to have before I stopped taking advantage of these people?
I know that often I feel impotent when presented with problems in third world countries. I see dictators on the TV, and the money they are siphoning away from their people, and I'm outraged, but what can I do? I see wars going on, and atrocities, but I'm not going to go over there and pick up a gun. That won't help.
But when I am presented with the opportunity to purchase a fair trade product, that I can do.
I know that some of my tax dollars go to helping out in these countries. I also contribute to charities that work among third world people. I sponsor two children through World Vision. To me, fair trade is different, and better, because it's not aid—it's paying a fair price for an agricultural product.
Let's face it, paying fair prices for food is an issue for us in North America. I have grown accustomed to paying for factory food. Industrially grown, industrially processed, industrially presented in the supermarket, along with a sign that says “I am cheaper than the competitors.” In the process, I've lost connection to the growers, which is a whole other issue, but more importantly, I've lost a lot of value—food value, nutritional value and even human value.
More and more, the research is showing that industrially produced food, commoditized food if you will, does long term harm. It strips the soil of it's biodiversity and micronutrients (don't get me started about the loss of biodiversity in seeds), it strips the food of it's nutritionally valuable phenols and trace nutrients, and it leaves me nutritionally deficient in a way that causes degenerative harm.
Fair trade is a way for me to put value back into the system. It values the person, typically a small holder (mom and pop enterprise), who tended the crop. It is typically organic, which represents tremendous value to me. It values the transportation system, from farm gate to my dinner table. And yes, everyone in that process deserves to earn a reasonable income. Fair trade values me, because I am expending my energies, represented by my money, on what is right, and fair, and wholesome. And that makes me more human.