For a few years now, I have really been trying to be conscious of the food items I purchase, especially ones like chocolate, coffee, and tea. The reason being that, unfortunately, these readily available and relatively cheap commodities don’t reflect the true cost of purchase. I had heard of the “fair trade certification” a while ago and how foods that were certified as fair trade often meant the farmers who produced them were given fair wages in return for their services. This sounded great to me and was something I definitely supported. However, that was pretty much the extent of what I knew. At the time, I didn’t quite perceive just how disturbing and unjust the treatment could be for workers producing these products.
About 4 years ago, I remember reading an article that talked about how cocoa is often produced through the work of child slave labor, and how both adults and children often live and work in atrocious conditions on large plantations receiving little to no pay. I guess that was the first really horrifying story I had seen in regards to the production of a food product that I frequently consumed. This story, for many obvious reasons, did not sit well with me. It really made me start to question many of my food purchases and it made me realize that quite often “cheap food” is not really cheap at all. It is frustrating, too, because it feels like we have a metaphorical wall that large corporations have built between the consumer and the producer. For instance, all we see are funny commercials advertising delicious and cheap chocolate without even realizing that odds are somebody was exploited somewhere along the way in the manufacturing process. For me, that isn’t acceptable and I feel like we have a moral obligation as consumers to try and make choices that benefit all parties involved.
One of the problems a consumer faces is that there are so many choices, corporations, and labels that it becomes difficult to track where the food we purchase comes from and what the manufacturer’s policies are on employee treatment and methods of production. Again, I refer back to my statement about the metaphorical wall between us and the food we eat. It really is so difficult, and it is my opinion that many companies use this to their advantage, hoping that consumers remain unaware and quite frankly unable to ascertain the true story behind the food they purchase. Remember the saying “ignorance is bliss”? This saying often seems apropos when it comes to food manufacturing.
Now this is where the “fair trade certified” label comes in. Yes, I know I am touting a label after just criticizing the excessive abundance of them earlier. However, this one really helps! Obviously, nothing is foolproof. Just because a food product says it is fair trade certified does not guarantee that it was produced in an ethical and sustainable manner, but it is a good start. For instance, according to Fair Trade USA, “From poverty to climate change to struggles with health and safety, people all over the world face incredible challenges simply trying to earn a living. To compete in today’s market, businesses drive down prices at the expense of those most vulnerable: farmers, workers, and fishermen. This simply can’t go on. Shopping Fair Trade means taking a stand for a system that treats everyone with respect.”
Organizations such as Fair Trade USA and Equal Exchange make it their mission to create a market in which farmers are given reasonable prices in return for their products. Rather than use the producer as a means to an end and nothing more, they try to foster long-term partnerships that are economically and environmentally fair. Additionally, they try to ensure that some of the revenue is returned to the place where the food originated in order to do things like build schools so that farmers’ children can get an education. The organizations also try to help farmers expand their production by using revenue to raise livestock or plant products aside from the target commodity, which in turn produces additional income and improves the quality of their lives. The idea of these platforms is to build a synergistic relationship with the farmers, allowing them to have a say and most importantly, to receive fair and just treatment for their work. There are so many incredible, localized projects being undertaken by these and other organizations. I highly recommend looking into the websites linked in this article for more information.
Sure it might cost more to buy that bag of coffee or tea or that chocolate bar with the fair trade label on it, but it seems more than worth it to me. For example, in addition to the ethical benefits, food products grown under fair trade standards are likely to be more nutritious since they are often produced in healthier soils and environments that in turn produce more nutrient dense products. It is one of those things where if we really step back and add in all the unaccounted costs of cheap chocolate or coffee or tea—is it really that cheap after all? The cheap costs come in the form of what is quite frequently less nutritious food and the unjust treatment of workers and the lands they live on. I think the picture sometimes needs to be presented in a different light so that it becomes less about the dollar sign on the shelf and more about the story behind the product getting to said shelf. That story is the one I want to know about and the one that will really tell me the true cost of the product.
How do you think we can more effectively raise awareness about the ethical and environmental issues that often surround the manufacturing of common products such as coffee and chocolate?