The beans are spread out to dry in the noon-day sun. There are thousands of them, glinting under the heat rays in a purplish-red hue. They have been planted and pruned, gleaned and cleaned. After they are processed in the heat, they will be sent off to be milled. And once they are hulled, polished, graded, sorted, and roasted, they are packaged for sale and shipped to their final destination, which could be as far as halfway around the world.
When the fresh-seal pack is opened, the full-bodied scent of coffee rushes out—it could be piney, piquant, nutty, nippy, floral, or fragrant. It creates a rich liquid that shimmers in your cup, ready for you to enjoy—no matter what price you paid for it.
But what if you knew that while you paid $4 for that cup of coffee, the farmer was only paid $1 for a whole pound of beans? While the farmer puts in more than 75% of the time needed to get those coffee beans to you, some farmers see less than 5% of the profits. That probably doesn’t go down as smoothly as your cup of coffee.
What is Fair Trade?
Fair trade is the movement whose goal is to help the farmer in the above scenario—and other laborers in developing countries who are susceptible to similar scenarios—to receive a more proportionate percentage of the profits from their trade, and thereby experience more economic sustainability.
Just to be clear, free trade and fair trade are different:
- Free trade is basically trading free of conditions or tariffs.
- Fair trade is intentionally sharing profits to promote fairness.
Do Christians support fair trade? Is artificially leveling the economic playing field biblical?
It is overwhelmingly clear that the Bible does encourage us to promote fairness.
Does fair trade achieve its goals of profit-sharing and sustainability? We can’t provide a definite answer to that in this article, but it is overwhelmingly clear the Bible DOES encourage us to promote fairness, treat people with dignity, and be generous (Matthew 7:12, Philippians 2:4, 1 John 3:17). Helping others improve and protect their possessions is part of God’s call to us, and if fair trade has the potential to be a good channel to do that, then yes, we support fair trade.
The wider premise that every person has value and should be treated with dignity compels the Christian to support fairness in trading.
God made every person (Psalm 100:3, Psalm 139:13-14), loves every person (John 3:16), continues to be intimately and caringly aware of the details of every person’s life (Matthew 10:29-31), and wants every person to live with him forever (1 Timothy 2:4).
Therefore, God expects Christians to treat every person, no matter how he or she may look to us (James 2:1-9), with dignity befitting creatures who are so special to him. God has shown himself to be merciful and generous, and Christians are called to do the same (Psalm 112:5, Luke 6:38, Proverbs 22:9, Psalm 37:25-26, 1 Timothy 6:18-19).
“For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” 2 Corinthians 8:13-15
The way we treat people in trade and economic matters isn’t excluded from this. The phrase, “It’s not personal, it’s just business” might be legitimate when you’re firing someone who isn’t qualified for a job, but it isn’t an excuse to take advantage of the work a person does just because you’re in a more powerful position than they are. You wouldn’t underpay your friends for a job well done, and everyone in the world is just as worthy of fair compensation as your friends are.
Note that we’re not advocating one political perspective over another. Right now much of the fair trade movement is voluntary—products are made available, and people who think fair trade is important can choose to purchase them. It becomes political when we talk about whether fair trade practices should be codified into trade laws. At that point it’s less a discussion about whether fair trade is good, and more about whether regulation is the best way to influence our economic systems. The Bible doesn’t spell out answers to these kinds of questions, but it does support individuals who work to understand the current systems and advocate what they believe to be thoughtful and effective improvements.
A life of service goes beyond giving money.
Responding to the needs of the world’s poor means doing more than giving money to organizations and agencies, or even directly to the poor themselves. It also involves providing poverty-stricken people a way to establish some dignity and freedom.
Sometimes this will mean giving money to organizations such as World Vision who are empowering communities to build their own micro-enterprises. Sometimes it will mean making the choice between Fair Trade coffee, chocolate, fruit, or other commodities, and cheaper products. Sometimes it will mean a choice between one ballot measure/candidate or another. Sometimes it will mean walking/biking to work instead of hopping in our gas-guzzler or ethanol-drinking SUV.
As consumers, parents, employees, siblings, leaders, or voters, we have many different forms of influence. It is in those roles that we believe we must find ways to alleviate the suffering of people living in extreme poverty. Does this mean Christians don’t give money to the poor? By no means! However, it does mean we don’t think that just giving money to the poor is enough. We believe evaluating our daily decisions to ensure they don’t contribute to unfairness—and where possible, promote fairness instead—is our responsibility.
While not perfect by any means, right now fair trade may be one of the better solutions.
Is the fair trade movement actually successful in what it sets out to do? Great question. For now, it seems to be in some cases and not others. Some fair trade certifying organizations seem to be more rigorous than others in the practices required for products to obtain their seal. Are you usually doing more good than harm by buying something with a fair trade label? Probably. But due diligence in understanding the nuances of the fair trade movement and official fair trade labels is important to maximize the impact your dollars are having.
How can you or your community get involved? All of these are great places to start:
- Learn about the people and practices in other countries that are part of the supply chain behind the products you buy. Knowing more about these people and their lives will help you grasp the larger, human impact of your purchases.
- Find a fair deal at your local market. Boutique, natural, or organic markets often already provide a wide variety of fairly traded products. Look for an official fair trade seal.
- Advocate a fair deal by volunteering for fair trade companies or organizations.
- Drink a fair deal. Don’t let your convenience get in the way of others’ subsistence. Only drink fair trade coffee, tea, and wine.
- Demand fair deals from your local purveyors (markets, shops, cafés, and restaurants). Write letters to the managers or owners.
- Share your fair deal with others on social media or when you host others for a meal at your home.