07/19/2012 09:40 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

Fair Trade: A Utopian Concept Surviving in a Dystopian World

I was nine years old the first time I encountered the concept of fair trade. The students in the grade above me had studied organic fair trade coffee companies and put up signs around my elementary school advocating for them. I knew the meaning of the words 'fair' and 'trade' in separate contexts, but for some reason my mind could not put the two together to figure out what the phrase meant as a whole. There's a slight chance I thought Fair Trade Coffee was the name of a café. I didn't pursue the topic any further after the signs came down, and the idea quickly left my head, only popping in to say hello and remind me of its existence every year or so. I would look at it and think, "Huh, that's interesting," and then dismiss it.

The idea of fair trade didn't resurface entirely until I was reading up about the wonderful human that is Emma Watson, when I stumbled upon the information that she had collaborated with a clothing brand called People Tree. I love Emma Watson and I also love fashion, so by common logic I thought I would love People Tree. It is quite rare that situations work out that way for me, but this time it did. I clicked the cute curlicue text button and was brought to People Tree's website. I saw a tab on the page that mentioned something about fair trade -- the little old man in my brain started running through the archives of my mind and pulled out the file I'd stored in there for future reference about the topic... and found it empty. This is a common occurrence. I thought, "When there is a void in my realm of knowledge it must be filled!" If only this was how I felt about my academic subjects. As I began reading the passionately worded (yet tasteful) information page on People Tree's website, I slowly realized that fair trade was not such a foreign topic. It was in fact one that I had already thought about and discussed, it had just never been given a title in my head. The more I read, the more involved I became with the subject. Child labor?! No way, guys. Women not receiving equal pay for equal work?! You kidding me? Unhealthy and unsafe working conditions?! How is this still a thing? All of these issues came up during my freshman biology class (we had a fairly liberal teacher; we tended to digress from the subject at hand and have vehement arguments about government and corporate corruption) and I would continue to grumble angrily to my friends during lunch about how ridiculous the world is. We all know that actions speak louder than words, especially when the words are quietly expressed, poorly phrased and consequently incomprehensible. The fact that organizations such as People Tree, Fair Indigo and World Fair Trade Organization are actually doing things put my mumbling to shame. As lame as I felt while reading about fair trade, it motivated me to take action through my writing. Raising awareness is not as effective as starting a company that engages in fair trade, but I feel as though doing that at age 15 is a bit too ambitious. Trust me, that is a future goal.

I've gotten this far without mentioning any real information on the topic -- remember the whole irate rambling issue I have? If my seventh grade English teacher was correct, particulars come before analysis, not the other way around. Without further ado, I give you... solid facts so hard that if you were to throw them, you could potentially harm a puppy. Not that you should ever try to cast intagible objects at innocent canines or anything like that.

According to World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO),

"The term Fair Trade defines 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 developing countries."

The trading system is centered around three main themes that I have extracted from my research: compensation, equality and honesty. These are the key to successful commerce in any field, yet most people seem to forget to incorporate any of the three into their business practices. It baffles me that the world market has become so convoluted and corrupt that such simple morals as treating workers fairly and with respect have become atypical. It is now the norm for a large corporation to recruit child laborers, to pay below the minimum wage and to take advantage of their employees' social positions. WFTO began "writing the rules" for fair trade around 20 years ago because the concept's popularity started to increase around that time. Now, the organization is considered one of -- if not the primary -- authorities on ethical dealings worldwide, from production to sales and everything in between. WFTO does not discriminate against the businesses they advocate for (that would be against their rules, silly!) as long as they comply with the group's 10 basic principles. Sounds easy enough, right? Some organic cotton here, some alienated seamstresses there, and voilà! Just pop it in the microwave for 90 seconds and you're done. If only creating a fair trade certified company was as easy as Orville Redenbacher claims making popcorn is -- and if you're me, the latter isn't too simple either.

The first of these criteria is that the company creates opportunities for producers or craftspeople that are at an economic disadvantage. The organization must support small family businesses, assocations or cooperatives in order to give them financial independence and make them self-sufficient. The second rule discusses transparency and accountability. If you're like me and don't understand these words beyond their use in Chase Bank advertisements, I'll simplify this concept. Essentially, the organization has to be honest with their workers and trading alliances as well as allow them the opportunity to partake in decision-making processes. Rule number three is kind of a mouthful. To summarize, it states that the organization should not be participating in fair trade to maximize their profit at the expense of the producers, the company won't copy other peoples' designs without their permission, blahdiblahdiblah. To me, these are just basic principles of morality, but I guess respecting the labor of other human beings is too much to ask nowadays.

Speaking of principles, the fourth one on WTFO's list is similar to the previous one: The prices are reasonable and mutually agreed upon by both sides. Criterion number five says that no forced and/or child laborers shall be employed in the making of fair trade items. The fact that things like these are guidelines for how to be a fair trade group bewilders me. Ethics, people. They are still relevant today. Apparently they were phased out with the obsolescence of parchment paper and ice boxes. Sixth on the list is one of my most highly favored: gender equality, freedom of association and non-discrimination! Hooray! As a self-proclaimed feminist and budding social activist (I'm still in the angry-at-the-world-but-too-furious-to-do-anything phase), this topic naturally speaks to me. Let's get a bit hypothetical. Just because I can have babies, some guy that works just as hard as I do gets more money? Oh -- oh, right, I see how that works now. Thanks for clearing that up. Maybe I'm a Buddhist, or perhaps I'm a member of the Church of Scientology; why should it matter if I'm doing my job well? It's probably because I usually poison each garment I make with a special potion I concocted that brainwashes everyone into worshipping Buddha or reaching a spiritual understanding with Tom Cruise. That tends to be the dealbreaker. If injustice were to take the form of howler monkey, the entire planet would have gone deaf by now. The next few rules are short, sweet and to the point, starting with number seven: The organization must provide good working conditions. The eighth concept promises that the company will help their employees improve and grow, while the ninth states that it must promote and advocate for fair trade. Doing anything else would be counterproductive, don't you think? Last, but definitely not least--especially when the caramel candies in my cabinet are melting and peoples' eyelashes are sweating as we speak--guideline number 10 tells organizations to channel Aretha Franklin and give the environment some well deserved R-E-S-P-E-C-T, the same way young children are told by television endorsements to respect Capri Sun pouches.

To some people, fair trade may symbolize a sort of ideal work force that can't possibly exist in our current economy. That is exactly what is so fascinating about it. Fair trade is a concept working against the grain of what is culturally and morally accepted in commerce. It's fighting the very system that has been oppressing, impoverishing, and manipulating our fellow humans for so many years. After all this time, it would seem impossible to make any permanent changes, yet fair trade organizations are doing it. As WFTO has eloquently phrased it, "Fair Trade is more than just trading: it proves that greater justice in world trade is possible. It highlights the need for change in the rules and practice of conventional trade and shows how a successful business can also put people first."

The terrible issue with all of the injustice in the trading industry is that the people who run the involved corporations tell lies. So many massive companies have pulled the wool over the majority of the consumers' eyes -- no pun intended -- that some people refuse to believe that fair trade is actually feasible, if not a more ethically correct alternative.

So we've discovered the problem, but can we fix it? I always enjoy drawing inspiration from children's cartoons, so in the words of Bob the Builder (not to mention our president, but I like to think that Barack Obama took this catchphrase from the animated construction worker), "Yes we can!" Luckily, for all of you good-hearted but apathetic people out there, fair trade businesses have already done 50 percent of the work for us. For example, Fair Indigo states on their website that the fair trade prices that are set for commidities like coffee and tea strive to cover production costs as well as the cost of living -- food, shelter, clothing, education and medical care included. Fair trade groups don't just help out their workers, although even that much would be enough to surpass other companies. They aid the communities they work with to invest in development projects such as schooling, health care and housing programs by having the employees set aside part of their income towards a social premium. Equitable treatment of workers? Check. Improvements in local communities? Check. Even our good old friend the environment benefits from fair trade. The farmers who participate in fair trade cooperatives avoid the use of toxic agrochemicals that are often used to control pests. A decrease in utilization of harmful pesticides equals a happy Earth!

I am primarily a fashion journalist, so of course, I must tie this all back into an apparel-related sub-topic. Fair Indigo has started making garments out of "organic and other ecologically friendly fabrics." This may make their clothing more expensive, but isn't the higher price worth paying when you think about how many peoples' lives are improved -- if not saved -- by your purchase? Think about that glowing feeling you get when you know you've done something good for the world. I bet that has never happened to you from buying a shirt. Now it can. If nothing else, it's something you can cross off your bucket list: "Feel an overwhelming sense of gratification from purchasing a blouse." Done. I urge you to also consider what the founders of Fair Indigo said on their website about starting their business: "After years in the apparel industry, a small group of us decided to throw our corporate lives out the window and start something completely new." Throw your metaphorical corporate life out of the proverbial window and start afresh by sustaining the earth and its inhabitants. This is change we can believe in.