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True confession: Before I started working at Green America almost seven years ago, I had never heard of the Fair Trade movement. In my interview with our Green Business Network director Denise Hamler, in fact, I got confused and accidentally called it “free trade.”
“You mean Fair Trade, right?” she asked me. “Oh, yes,” I said, “What did I say?”
But like many conscious consumers who aren’t yet connected to the Fair Trade movement per se, I was already deeply interested in the concept of making sure that the products I buy are traded fairly – that producers at the beginning of the supply chain make a decent wage, that the products that pass through my hands on a daily basis aren’t tainted with the suffering of others. It’s part of why I wanted to work for Green America in the first place, because the definition of “green” should always be about the health of both people and the planet.
The greenest green you'll ever see... in the rice fields of Isaan, in northeastern Thailand. (See a slide show here.)
Over the course of my time with Green America, I’ve learned a lot more, naturally, about the Fair Trade movement, whether working to promote Fair Trade events like last month’s reverse trick-or-treating, meeting Fair Trade leaders who come to speak at our Green Festivals, or writing articles for our newsletter whenever new Fair Trade products receive certification.
It was in 2007, when I began work on an updated version of our Fair Trade Guide, that I made a connection that would eventually lead me to the rice farms outside of Surin, in rural northeastern Thailand. In that guide, we published an interview with Kyra Busch, then the global action director for ENGAGE, an educational network that organizes consumers to increase demand for Fair Trade rice. As I asked Kyra questions about the effect of the Fair Trade system on rural rice-farming cooperatives, she encouraged me to visit Thailand to learn for myself.
At the time, the idea of following the Fair Trade rice supply chain to its source seemed distant, remote, or impossible. But in early 2009, when a friend of mine moved to Chiang Mai in the mountainous northwest of Thailand, I decided this would be my chance to travel to the rice cooperative in the northeast as well. I decided to follow up with Kyra. I e-mailed ENGAGE, and although Kyra was no longer working there, it required a total of only two e-mails to connect with Bennett Haynes, the man who would eventually meet up with me in Thailand, accompany me to the rice cooperative, and translate for me because I don’t speak Thai.
I want to emphasize the ease of that connection. With just a handful of e-mails I was able to board a plane, then catch an overnight train, and then climb into the pick-up truck that would take me straight to the beginning of the Fair Trade supply chain. The system is that short and direct.
Imagine any conventional consumer product you buy. How many steps do you think it would it take for you to come face to face with the person who made it? Would all the middlemen involved even allow it, knowing you’d be able to see for yourself the conditions at the beginning of the chain, and talk to the people who are there? What do you think you would see, and would you want to?
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