Fair Trade, Meet Social Work.

Fair trade is quickly becoming a part of all of our vocabulary and has the ability to affect many of the products we use in our daily lives. What does fair trade have to do with social work? What does it even mean?

Fair Trade and Social work are more alike than you think.

Globalized Society

In our increasingly globalized and mostly capitalistic society, purchasing power presents an important opportunity to live out principles rooted in social work in the economic realm. Businesses that depend on exploitative labor practices abound, flooding the market with mass-produced goods at a high human and environmental cost. When profit is a manufacturer’s sole aim, corporate business models take advantage of countries who are already impoverished or unstable, setting up factories and sweat shops that mass produce goods as cheaply as possible.

Through Fair Trade, coffee (and other) farmers earn better incomes, allowing them to hold on to their land invest in quality.

Through Fair Trade, coffee (and other) farmers can have better access to credit which allows them invest in quality, maintain their land ultimately earn a stable income.

The Need for Fair Trade

There are countless businesses who exploit their laborers, especially overseas and immigrant workers. Because profit is their only bottom line, these companies thwart opportunities to treat employees with dignity and respect, instead forcing their workers to labor in harsh conditions for unfair wages, putting them at risk of injury, and many times death. Far too often, companies face no accountability for these unfair practices.

There are, however, a growing number of businesses that are making the opposite choice, that are fighting to change the way goods are produced and workers are treated, through fair trade standards. Social workers have power as consumers to put into practice our professional principles, to choose to use our collective and individual purchasing power to support businesses and products that employ fair labor practices.

What is Fair Trade?

Fair trade is an ethical alternative to conventional international trade practices that “seeks greater equity in international trade,” and aims to uphold certain ethical principles that ensure social, economic, and environmental development at all levels of the supply chain.

Beyond mere trading (the selling and purchasing of goods), fair trade is a social justice movement that envisions a world in which trade practices work to reduce poverty and discrimination, consumers are empowered to make informed choices, and “everyone, through their work, can maintain a decent and dignified livelihood and develop their full human potential.”

The official accepted definition of fair trade, as set forth by leading Fair Trade organizations in the Charter of Fair Trade Principles is:

“Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair Trade Organizations, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.”

Businesses go through a rigorous monitoring process to become fair-trade certified, guaranteeing that those businesses that successfully attain certification are upholding fair trade principles at all levels of production. Fair trade businesses are privileging people over profit and actively engaging in a movement to transform current trading practices to ensure that goods are produced and sold in an ethical manner.

Social Work Values and Fair Trade Principles

The principles upon which Fair Trade is based and the core values in which social work is rooted share much in common, illuminating the relevance of supporting Fair Trade practices from a social work lens. In essence, the fair trade movement’s principles and aims reflect and uphold key values of social work.

As directly stated in the NASW handbook, social work values include:

  • Service – social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems
  • Social Justice – social workers challenge social injustice.
  • Dignity and Worth of the Person – social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.

These three values are clearly reflected in the following fair trade principles, as set forth in the Charter of Fair Trade Principles,:

  • Principle One: Creating Opportunities for Economically Disadvantaged Producers
    Fair trade aims to reduce poverty through trade, and support marginalized people in their pursuit of self-sufficiency. This principle challenges existing injustices in conventional trade practices that favor large producers, and seeks to help people in need by addressing social problems in the economic realm.
  • Principle Three: Fair Trading Practices
    “The organization trades with concern for the social, economic and environmental well-being of marginalized small producers and does not maximize profit at their expense.” Concern for the well-being of persons respects the dignity and worth of the person.
  • Principle Five:  Ensuring no Child Labor and Forced Labor
    This principle challenges the many injustices inherent in child labor and forced labor practices, and seeks to help the marginalized groups affected by those issues.
  • Principle Six:  Commitment to Non Discrimination, Gender Equity and Women’s Economic Empowerment, and Freedom of Association
    This principle shows a respect for the dignity and worth of all persons, while seeking to help marginalized groups who often face discrimination in employment and labor practices, and challenge the existing injustice that discrimination presents.

While fair trade limits itself to the difference that can be made by implementing ethical trading practices, its goals and aims clearly align with the broader values of social work. Social work is a profession rooted in the pursuit of social justice through the promotion of dignity and respect for all humanity, and societal practices and policies that promote justice and equality.

Promoting Social Justice

Social workers have the power to enact social work principles and values in our daily work with clients. And we also have another arena in which we can make the conscious choice to use our collective and individual power to pursue social justice – as consumers who choose to be conscious of the businesses and trading practices we support with our purchases. Fair trade organizations and companies present an important opportunity for social workers to engage in ethical trading practices that promote social justice on a daily basis.