Fair trade versus buy local: shopping dilemmas for ethically conscious consumers

Image credit: http://www.ethicalocean.com/content/buying-local-vs-fair-trade-infographic

Image credit: http://www.ethicalocean.com/content/buying-local-vs-fair-trade-infographic

The term fair trade has been appropriated by organisations and businesses working on improving livelihood opportunities and working conditions in developing countries. It is about connecting poor farmers and manufacturers to international marketing channels, and applying ethical standards to trade relations. Fair trade is now almost exclusively understood to be about goods imported from afar. Alongside fair trade, a growing ‘buy local’ movement advocates consumption of locally produced and locally manufactured goods, aiming (among other things) to cut carbon emissions by reducing shipping distances, and to develop local livelihoods and communities. People concerned about the social and environmental consequences of their purchasing decisions are increasingly wondering whether to choose fair trade, or choose local. Indeed this Christmas in Edinburgh, fair trade groups are calling for people to have a ‘fair trade Christmas’, while signs have popped up on the streets advising people to ‘buy local this Christmas’.

In some cases, choosing between fair trade and local is about choosing different types of products, for example local apples over fair trade imported bananas. In other cases, more or less the same product is available as either local or fair trade. For example, cane sugar with the Fairtrade label is produced in a range of different countries around the world, and is widely available in the UK, including at the University of Edinburgh. Yet British sugar from sugar beet is also on the market. In such cases, an ethically conscious consumer in required to weigh up potential social and environmental benefits of each option, typically without sufficient information to hand, in order to make a decision. The same dilemma is increasingly applicable to manufactured goods such as clothing. A number of small, British brands are offering clothing made in the UK – from fully local products made from local wool using local factories, to jeans stitched in the UK using cotton produced and woven into cloth in other parts of the world. Yet at the same time, a range of fair trade clothing brands are offering garments manufactured in developing countries, respecting fair trade principles. There is a choice between supporting the local economy, and supporting livelihoods in poorer parts of the world.

The benefits of fair trade goods are easily identified. Fair trade initiatives enable those at the bottom of the production and processing chain to receive a higher price for their goods or labour. Fair trade also works to bring other benefits like training opportunities, cooperative working or the right to join a union, and better conditions. No forced labour is permitted, and projects seek to inform and empower disadvantaged workers with regards to their own value in global trade networks. Evidently the objectives of fair trade movements are ambitious, and there will be cases where they are not always all met, but when a product is available with a fair trade label, and without, such as coffee, it is a clear to an ethically-minded consumer that the fair trade option is the one to go for. However, there are a range of different fair trade and ethical labels, and also products described as fair trade without a third party label. Knowing which product comes from the fairest supply chain is a challenge.

The arguments for buying local goods are also easy to understand. Buying food or manufactured goods produced in one’s own country or region means support for local farming, manufacturing and retail businesses, which can in turn mean local jobs are maintained or even created – as opposed to facilitating the expansion of transnational corporations with often dubious commitment to workers’ rights and community development (although this does not apply to the same extent if buying locally-produced goods from a supermarket!). In terms of environmental benefits, the closer the production and processing sites are to consumers, the lower the amount of fuel needed for transportation. However, the ‘food miles’ argument is not so clear cut. If agricultural products are grown in heated poly tunnels or greenhouses in the UK, there may be higher carbon emissions than if the same products were shipped in from warmer parts of the world. So it is not always certain that buying local is more environmentally-friendly than buying imported goods.

In terms of social impact, the choice between fair trade and local is between supporting some of the poorest producers in the poorest parts of the world through fair trade initiatives, and supporting local workers here in the West, who are evidently much better off, even those without paid work. It may for some seem logical to choose the former, and support the poorest people. Yet people often have a strong sense of identity linked to their own communities and nations, and prefer to support economic development locally, rather than in far way places they have most likely never been to.

In some contexts, local and fair trade can be the same thing. The Soil Association, primarily known for its organic certification, has developed Ethical Trade standards for local produce, which reflect fair trade criteria regarding workers’ rights and fair trading relations (implying that some local products are issued from unfair trade). For consumers in developing countries, fair trade products produced in those countries are increasingly being marketed to local consumers – termed South-South fair trade. In these cases, it is becoming easier to choose local and fair trade at the same time.

It seems choosing between local and fair trade when looking for the most ethical purchasing choice is not easy, and there is plenty of overlap between the two in terms of social and environmental principles. There is perhaps a question of terminology to be resolved. Rather than pitching fair trade and buy local against each other, it could be useful to find a way to incorporate the ethical considerations of each into one assessment and labelling process. Increasing numbers of consumers are interested in how ethical a product is in terms of environmental sustainability, workers’ rights (both local and global), and community benefits. The term fair trade could potentially be used to cover all of these aspects – as the movements described above are seeking fairness for workers and communities, and fair use of resources. At the University of Edinburgh we use the term fair trade to refer to a whole range of approaches, including fair trade certification, supply chain codes of conduct, and trade policy aspects, but it seems much more discussion, debate and decision-making is needed among practitioners, policy makers and academics on what fair trade, as a broad concept, really is, to what contexts it can be applied, and how.