Fair Trade and the Environment: The big picture


It's less and less defensible for business interests to make decisions resulting in short-term profit for some at the expense of the earth itself (see an earlier post on this topic). While it's important for our thinking to include the environment, we can't stop there. Our current economic and environmental problems must be seen through a wider lens so that we can avoid the compartmentalizing pitfalls of the past. Fair trade products, which must be produced using safe environmental practices, also require equitable labor conditions that foster community development. Is that too much to demand from your cup of coffee?

In fact, it's difficult to make changes on an environmental level without taking into consideration the human nexus in which all economic production takes place. The Global Exchange's publication on Fair Trade and the Environmentdescribes coffee cultivation during the 1970s and 80s: As part of a trend towards more "efficient" production or "the so-called Green Revolution, the US Agency for International Development gave $80 million dollars for plantations in Central America to replace traditional shade grown farming techniques with more efficient 'sun cultivation' techniques." Sun cultivation results in deforestation and requires the use of pesticides which permeate the land, water, and local water supplies.

This short-term "efficiency" was vastly destructive to the environment. When small farmers have been able to survive and pass on traditional practices to their children, they have been able to maintain their more sustainable farming practices that do not rely on razing forests or the use of pesticides. Note that these practices are embedded within the social structure but can only continue if their small plantations are able to compete with the large monocropping plantations boosted by chemicals.

It doesn't stop with coffee. According to, "In rice-growing countries such as India, Fair Trade certifying bodies regulate the use of chemicals in rice cultivation, and farmers are taught to stabilize the soil and the farm environment, promoting a sustainable agriculture that creates organic crops and protects the farmers' health as well." But it is not only the farmers who receive education through the Fair Trade system. In Nicaragua, for example, where coffee is a major Fair Trade crop, cooperatives have established a scholarship program for dozens of children to attend primary and secondary school.

Fair Trade is not to be mistaken for an externally-imposed paternalistic system that teaches farmers how to farm and how to live. All families want the best opportunities for their children: fair trade prices merely expand the opportunities available for these families. I found an article that does a good job of explaining the way social and economic forces tie in to the realities of small cocoa farmers. It's from a couple years back on the Friends of Animals site, ironically enough, but it is a well-researched overview of the child labor that has all too often been employed on cocoa plantations. Their version of the causal relationships involved in child labor:

"When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund introduced adjustments compelling the Ivory Coast to dismantle its cocoa board and government supported price system, living standards plummeted in rural communities. Suddenly, small farmers—with no idea of the mechanics of free trade or commodities brokers—were on their own. With 70% of the population of the Ivory Coast tied to cocoa farms, the fall of cocoa prices in 1999 and 2000 led to the cutting of healthcare funding and teachers' salaries, and, according to the International Labor Rights Fund, to 'the widespread use of cheap child labor.'"

If market forces are keeping families in a grinding cycle of poverty in which education is an unattainable luxury, then fair trade cocoa seeks to combat this by setting a price calculated to cover the cost of sustainable production. "A premium is also paid to Fair Trade fruit farms which is further invested in community development," according to TransfairUSA.

Read more about the environmental, social and business benefits of fair trade cocoa.

Read our overview of fair trade from the Conscious Consumer Marketplace.

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