The Holiday Fair Trade Gifts That Keep Giving

Tuesday 3 December 2002, by Alexandra GILBERT

PHOTO: Amélie Binette/Equiterre

When Canadian Tire tells us to give like Santa and save like Scrooge - it can only mean one thing... the holidays and the Christmas shopping extravaganza. While it may be difficult to avoid, there are ways to give like Santa, and not feel like a heartless Scrooge as you wonder if that perfect present was made in a sweatshop. This year, why not consider an ethical gift by buying a fair trade, or environmentally friendly product?

The idea of ethical consumption has gained a certain notoriety over the past several years. The many initiatives to cater to the socially conscious consumer attest to this. Numerous education campaigns have spurred increased questioning on where our products come from and who makes them. At the same time, companies have been forced into revealing not only how their goods are produced, but also the environmental impacts of their production. Concerned consumers can now adapt their buying habits, choosing to support Southern producers (fair trade), make a political statement, consume only environmentally friendly products, or even encourage social development via local solidarity.

Fair Trade

According to Equiterre, a Quebec-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting ecological and socially just choices, five million small producers are part of the fair trade movement. Their innovative structure operates on the margins of the market. These products, which circulate in a parallel market, are not subjected to price fluctuations or the whims of the market. Fair trade is grounded in two ideas: decent prices for Southern producers and educating Northern consumers. Agricultural products (tea, cocoa, sugar, jam, spices, honey, etc.) are the most well known fair trade products, with coffee as the leading example. Handicrafts as well are slowly but surely joining this alternative marketplace.

According to Equiterre consumption of fair trade coffee is on the rise in Canada, with sales doubling between 1997 and 1999. According to Transfair, an independent Canadian fair trade organization, in 2001, 4% of Canadian coffee drinkers opted for Fair trade coffee. Nevertheless fair trade coffee constitutes only 0.2% of the Canadian market. In Switzerland, the figure is closer to 5%. Stephade Kordai, from Café Rico, notes that Fair trade "plays an important role in the heats and minds of consumers", but this sentiment still needs to be turned into action at the cash register.

Part of the challenge, according to Kordai, is the numerous structural problems associated with getting fair trade products into the stores. For fair trade to avoid becoming yet another brand, it needs to be based on fair practices and responsibilities. In the future, it will be equally important for Southern partners to play a larger role, most notably by having their ideas and needs taken fully into consideration. Despite the best of intentions, fair trade remains largely dominated by Northern institutions and there are still some inroads that need to be made when it comes to North-South dialogue. Northern protectionist measures also act as an impediment to North-South solidarity.

Toward a North-South Solidarity

In Canada, it is becoming increasingly easy to access the fair trade marketplace. Ten Thousand Villages is a non-profit, self-supporting Alternative Trading Organization (ATO). They market products from handicraft and agricultural organizations based in low-income countries, designed to benefit artisans, not to maximize profits. They have over 135 stores across Canada, from British Colombia to Nova Scotia. Visit their web site (www.tenthousandvillages.ca) to find the store closest to you.

La Siembra Co-op is a North American fair trade organization offering consumers high-quality, certified fair trade organic products that improve the livelihoods of family farmers and the well being of communities. You can find their products in more than 500 stores throughout Canada, to find the store closest to you, check out their web site at www.lasiembra.com.

While fair trade is generally thought of in strictly North-South terms, there are also a myriad of Northern-centric fair trade options, including programs aimed at reducing poverty, and helping people who need a hand in adapting to our society. During the holiday season, rather than having a party catered by a business, almost every Canadian urban area has a catering service staffed by people who are part of a rehabilitation and skill-building program. Their prices are often cheaper, and the taste is as good, if not better.

Responsible consumerism means asking yourself who will profit from your purchase and ensuring that the people, or cause, you want to profit from your purchases, do. It is from this simple premise that, both here and abroad, the ethical consumer movement has grown. Having our purchases reflect our values is not always easy, but during heavy spending periods like the Holiday Season, it takes on increased importance, as our action at the cash register, will have direct impacts in the developing world. It is up to us to decide whether these impacts will be negative or positive.

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