Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.
by Tom Beutel
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49 (NIV)
By the time Peace Signs comes out the month of October will be almost over. Nevertheless, it is worth while reminding ourselves that October – and ideally every month – is Fair Trade Month. Just as we remember birthdays, anniversaries and holidays each year, it is important to remind ourselves regularly about various issues that relate to peace and justice. Fair trade is one of these issues.
The idea of trade, or commerce, is that generally people are not able to produce all of the goods and services that they need for themselves. Some lack resources, others may lack skills; some things require the efforts of groups of people working together. Whatever the reason, it is necessary for people to exchange goods and services which they produce for the goods and services that others produce.
Given the necessity of exchanging goods and services, the problem arises as to the best way to do this. Over time the system of the free market has developed. The free market is characterized by producers and consumers exchanging goods, typically using a medium of exchange such as currency. The amount of currency, or price, paid for goods and services is set according to a “natural” law of supply and demand – this is, an agreement of sorts between the buyer and the seller as to a fair price. When there is a surplus of goods, consumers are not willing to pay a high price, so the price falls. When there is a surfeit of good, the producers are not willing to receive a lower price, so the price rises.
All of this seems logical and fair. But, there are a number of problems. A significant one is that most exchanges are carried out not between the producer and consumer directly, but through a chain of agents who package, promote, and distribute goods and services. The price that the consumer is willing to pay must be divided among the various agents. Because of this, the producer will likely receive less than if they were able to sell directly to the consumer, especially if the price is low due to a surplus of goods.
Another problem is that consumers may not be able or willing to pay the price that producers are asking. In this case a lower price is set and the producer, at the end of the supply chain, again may not receive adequate payment to cover their costs or to provide a sufficient income for family needs.
Fair trade is an alternative model of exchange, where distributors work directly with the producers eliminating some of the agents in the supply chain. In addition, these distributors make loans available, guarantee a minimum price, and help small producers form cooperatives to pool resources. The net result is that the producer receives an adequate price.
How the exchange of goods and services is carried out is a peace and justice issue. As the scripture verse at the start of the article suggests, God cares about how we live in relation to other humans, especially those who are poor. For fair trade to work, consumers – you and I – must be willing to pay a higher price to insure that producers, often poor farmers or artisans, receive sufficient income to meet their needs.
There are a number of fair trade programs. Fair trade coffee is one, as coffee is a highly traded commodity. But fair trade also includes chocolate, apparel and household goods. To learn more about fair trade and how you can become involved check out the following sites:
- Fair Trade America: Celebrate Fair Trade Month this October – Learn about fair trade products and people.
- Be Fair: What is Fair Trade – Learn about fair trade and how you can be involved. http://befair.org/
- Equal Exchange: Fair Trade – Learn about the fair trade model, threats to fair trade, and ways you can engage to help promote and preserve the fair trade initiative. Also, buy fair trade coffee, chocolate and more.
- Novica: Buy Fair Trade products including jewelry, fashions, home decor and more.
Fair trade is one of those issues that everyone can be involved in. Whether you simply check labels at the local store and opt for fair trade alternatives, order fair trade products online, or advocate for fair trade practices, whatever you do helps insure a better life for farmers and artisans, particularly those who are poor.