Sunday, March 11, 2007

Fair Trade?

Ten Thousand Villages. A Greater Gift. Global Exchange. These and dozens of other companies are committed to supporting farmers and artisans in developing nations by paying them a fair wage for their products. I'm not much of a consumer these days, but I have bought from fair trade retailers, most of whom have online stores.

But a new "fair trade" enterprise is giving me pause. The venture is called Fair Indigo. I haven't ordered from them, but an online friend exchanged emails with a company representative regarding the source of their products. Other fair trade companies post detailed information about the communities and even individuals that produce the items they sell; Fair Indigo, however, provides only general information about where their products come from.

The email exchange is too long to post here, but the gist of the company's response was this: "Finding fair trade factories was and continues to be challenging in today’s low-cost climate...We may publish this information in the future, but at this time will protect it as proprietary."

What disturbs me first of all is that the company considers the information to be proprietary. I've always respected fair trade companies for their refusal to adopt a "business as usual" attitude, and one way they display this is by being open and forthcoming when a potential customer has a legitimate question. Consumers who buy from fair trade companies as a matter of conscience need to know the source of the merchandise—that is, whether it's a truly needy individual or a sweatshop.

I'm also disturbed by the fact that I didn't give this much thought before now. Granted, I've bought from only a few fair trade companies, and I knew them to be legitimate. Still, I wonder if I would have even questioned the validity of a particular "fair trade" retailer.

For now, I'm going to assume that as a new company, Fair Indigo is still figuring out how all this works. As I understand it, the owners came from Lands End, so they may be trying to apply that company's strategy to Fair Indigo. But fair trade companies play by different rules—thank God for that!—and that's the reason so many of us are willing to pay their often-higher prices. I wish Fair Indigo all the best as they presumably attempt to help people who are living in unimaginable poverty—and as they recognize the need to be more open about the source of their merchandise.

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