Content Warning

The following post contains disordered eating and self-harm.

Content Warning

The following post contains transphobia and racism.

Essays
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I was raised with a rigorous set of consumer ethics that made simple things like shopping for duvet covers fraught. Some of my earliest memories include my dad, Hugo, scoffing at the “Made in China” stamp on my cheap, engineered-for-the-dump birthday presents. My family’s consumer ethics asserted that trade should be as direct as possible, involve as few “middlemen” as possible, and that producers—particularly farmers—should be paid the best possible price, up front. As a result of these stringent ethics, I didn’t step foot into a Walmart until I was a teenager, and that was only because it was the one store in town that sold the right kind of flour to make arepas. 

Even when my budget forced me towards fast fashion brands like H&M, I’d still check the clothing tag. I would then wonder about the teen in Thailand, or Bangladesh, or El Salvador, who made it. What are the conditions of her life? How far does her paycheck stretch? Is her job safe? Are her managers competent or predatory? Does she dread going to work, or is low-wage labor her best-case scenario?

In August of 2021, pandemic-stressed supply chains left the aisles of New York City’s Targets empty, meaning my dad and I had to go further afield to find necessary dorm room basics. Most urgent? A new set of bed linens. Anxieties about buying from big box stores were unwelcome guests on our trip to the Pottery Barn Outlet store in Lititz, PA. Regardless of your values, sometimes you just need a fucking set of sheets. 

I isolated all the linens that were the correct size, acceptable texture, and had something resembling a tolerable price point. Left with two options, I studied the labels. On one of them, in inoffensive Arial Narrow text, were the words “fair trade.” 

They looked like any bed linens I could buy in any other big box store in North America: white cotton with a purple pattern. The package promised that the product was “ethically sourced,” “sustainable,” and “fully traceable.” Taking that as a challenge, I unfolded the sheets—juggling product and package, taking up the full aisle—and felt for a hidden tag underneath a finely finished seam. Finding it, I looked up the lot code, which led me to the factory, Alkaram Textile Mills. The website offered the name of the shift supervisor who, over a year ago, oversaw the making, packaging, and shipping of the product I was now holding. Alkaram had an English website featuring several photos of employees at various points of the production process, clearly seeking to cultivate a sense of transparency, even intimacy, with me. The employees looked happy. Short of getting on the plane and seeing the factory for myself, I had to rely on Alkaram’s Fair Trade EU and USA certifications to feel good about my purchase. 

Store shelves and social media feeds are increasingly full of products that claim to be “sustainable,” “ethical,” or “fairly traded.” While these claims are now nearly inescapable, they are inscrutable—and interchangeable—to the average consumer. “Fair trade” is not a legal term; it is an industry. Producers and employers pay third parties, such as the World Fair Trade Organization and Fair Trade USA, to audit their businesses in order to maintain their certifications. My dad channeled this belief that trade could be done differently into founding his own coffee company in 1997. Fed up with the fees and unwieldy bureaucracy of becoming so-called fair trade, some ethical retailers, including my dad’s business, eschew the fair trade label in favor of marketing their ethical claims directly to customers. Business owners who engage in ethical company practices rely on goodwill to get customers over the initial sticker shock of an ethically sourced product. As a result, many structure their message to seem as inoffensive and inclusive as possible, avoiding more divisive anti-capitalist rhetoric and praxis. Instead, they focus on humanizing the producer: they tell you their name, something about their family history, how they came to be a weaver, how long they’ve lived on this farm, or what it would mean to them to send their kids to school. The business owners work to reify the difficulties of bringing a product equitably and cheaply through the supply chain—the same conditions and complexities that corporations obscure with ruthless efficiency—to the distant North American consumer. The message is clear: by purchasing this product you are directly empowering this worker to improve the material conditions of their life. In our frenzied marketplace, buying “ethically sourced” products feels like a relatively frictionless means of reducing consumer harm, especially as corporations, seeking to capitalize on that good will, have made buying fair trade increasingly easy by putting it in our supermarket aisles. 

I was raised with a rigorous set of consumer ethics that made simple things like shopping for duvet covers fraught. Some of my earliest memories include my dad, Hugo, scoffing at the “Made in China” stamp on my cheap, engineered-for-the-dump birthday presents. My family’s consumer ethics asserted that trade should be as direct as possible, involve as few “middlemen” as possible, and that producers—particularly farmers—should be paid the best possible price, up front. As a result of these stringent ethics, I didn’t step foot into a Walmart until I was a teenager, and that was only because it was the one store in town that sold the right kind of flour to make arepas. 

Even when my budget forced me towards fast fashion brands like H&M, I’d still check the clothing tag. I would then wonder about the teen in Thailand, or Bangladesh, or El Salvador, who made it. What are the conditions of her life? How far does her paycheck stretch? Is her job safe? Are her managers competent or predatory? Does she dread going to work, or is low-wage labor her best-case scenario?

In August of 2021, pandemic-stressed supply chains left the aisles of New York City’s Targets empty, meaning my dad and I had to go further afield to find necessary dorm room basics. Most urgent? A new set of bed linens. Anxieties about buying from big box stores were unwelcome guests on our trip to the Pottery Barn Outlet store in Lititz, PA. Regardless of your values, sometimes you just need a fucking set of sheets. 

I isolated all the linens that were the correct size, acceptable texture, and had something resembling a tolerable price point. Left with two options, I studied the labels. On one of them, in inoffensive Arial Narrow text, were the words “fair trade.” 

They looked like any bed linens I could buy in any other big box store in North America: white cotton with a purple pattern. The package promised that the product was “ethically sourced,” “sustainable,” and “fully traceable.” Taking that as a challenge, I unfolded the sheets—juggling product and package, taking up the full aisle—and felt for a hidden tag underneath a finely finished seam. Finding it, I looked up the lot code, which led me to the factory, Alkaram Textile Mills. The website offered the name of the shift supervisor who, over a year ago, oversaw the making, packaging, and shipping of the product I was now holding. Alkaram had an English website featuring several photos of employees at various points of the production process, clearly seeking to cultivate a sense of transparency, even intimacy, with me. The employees looked happy. Short of getting on the plane and seeing the factory for myself, I had to rely on Alkaram’s Fair Trade EU and USA certifications to feel good about my purchase. 

Store shelves and social media feeds are increasingly full of products that claim to be “sustainable,” “ethical,” or “fairly traded.” While these claims are now nearly inescapable, they are inscrutable—and interchangeable—to the average consumer. “Fair trade” is not a legal term; it is an industry. Producers and employers pay third parties, such as the World Fair Trade Organization and Fair Trade USA, to audit their businesses in order to maintain their certifications. My dad channeled this belief that trade could be done differently into founding his own coffee company in 1997. Fed up with the fees and unwieldy bureaucracy of becoming so-called fair trade, some ethical retailers, including my dad’s business, eschew the fair trade label in favor of marketing their ethical claims directly to customers. Business owners who engage in ethical company practices rely on goodwill to get customers over the initial sticker shock of an ethically sourced product. As a result, many structure their message to seem as inoffensive and inclusive as possible, avoiding more divisive anti-capitalist rhetoric and praxis. Instead, they focus on humanizing the producer: they tell you their name, something about their family history, how they came to be a weaver, how long they’ve lived on this farm, or what it would mean to them to send their kids to school. The business owners work to reify the difficulties of bringing a product equitably and cheaply through the supply chain—the same conditions and complexities that corporations obscure with ruthless efficiency—to the distant North American consumer. The message is clear: by purchasing this product you are directly empowering this worker to improve the material conditions of their life. In our frenzied marketplace, buying “ethically sourced” products feels like a relatively frictionless means of reducing consumer harm, especially as corporations, seeking to capitalize on that good will, have made buying fair trade increasingly easy by putting it in our supermarket aisles. 

There is quantitative and qualitative data that suggests social enterprise and fair trade models can deliver significant benefits to individual workers, particularly to those who own their own enterprises or land. But, while fair trade business models may have the capacity to materially improve the lives of individuals, they are not—nor do they pretend to be—a path to a systemic transformation of globalized trade.

There is a lot of economic and social history between my dad importing his first container of coffee and my standing in Pottery Barn holding apparently fair trade sheets. My dad came of age in the ‘90s, during a series of neoliberal triumphs, as policies of tax reduction, deregulation, privatization, and austerity spread across the globe. At the time, there was consensus even among liberals and progressives that market strategies could be leveraged to eradicate extreme poverty and mitigate global inequality. 

Like many immigrants, my dad’s story is a confluence of sometimes hard-won, other times serendipitous, circumstances that gave him the opportunity to travel from his home country, Colombia, to study economics in Minnesota. He went to work as a financial analyst at a large engineering firm, but after nearly half a decade he became disillusioned with corporate America and set out on his own venture inspired by the trade ethics of a charming handicrafts market called Ten Thousand Villages. Unfortunately, the average consumer only has so much need for statement earrings, scarves, and heart-shaped rocks carved with the word “peace,” all of which Ten Thousand Villages is known for. My dad saw a potential solution to their problem: consumables. And as a Colombian, coffee was his obvious (if somewhat cliche) answer. 

After a lean few years, my dad built a profitable ethical food wholesaler called Level Ground Trading. By the time I was a teenager, Level Ground coffee was sold in grocery stores across the United States and Canada, including a five pound package developed especially for Costco. 

Throughout its history, the majority of actors in the fair trade movement—with some notable exceptions—have remained studiously apolitical. Instead of calling for regulation and worker protections when sweatshop scandals break, many of these brands pitch themselves as a safe alternative. This has gotten more complicated as fair trade products have become increasingly mainstream: Walmart, Target, and yes, Williams-Sonoma, the company that owns Pottery Barn, have all carried fair trade certified products for years. My dad thinks that this is unquestionably a good thing. I’m not so sure.

“The problem,” says Canada Research Chair in International Development Studies, Dr. Gavin Fridell, “is that corporations can’t be ethical.” For two decades, Dr. Fridell has criticized the fair trade movement from the Left, arguing that it is structurally limited because it relies on corporations and consumers to volunteer to pay a price that includes “fair” wages, safe working conditions, environmental responsibility, among other things, as opposed to requiring them to. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, when consumers in North America and Europe suddenly stopped buying jeans and started buying loungewear, companies supposedly committed to “corporate responsibility” such as Levi Strauss and American Eagle, canceled several orders, totalling a reported 1.5 billion dollars, leaving factories in Bangladesh to lay off thousands of low wage workers with little social safety net. Due to pressure from consumers on social media, some of these brands did eventually commit to paying out in-progress contracts, which the Worker Rights Consortium has been tracking, but because brands typically pay suppliers once a shipment is delivered, this did little to mitigate the immediate devastation for workers.

Even beloved fair trade brands fall short under the existing model. Self-described “radical transparency” pioneer, Everlane, laid off four customer service employees who had, just four days before, filed paperwork to get their union recognized. Before this, Everlane’s commitment to ethical sourcing and sustainable materials was nearly beyond reproach. Their clothes were accessible—more affordable than other ethical-ish options, yet worn by celebrities like Meghan Markle. According to reporting done by Jacobin, Everlane did eventually capitulate to some of the most important union demands, including a $19/hour minimum wage for customer service employees, paid time off, and other benefits. Despite the eventual resolution, the failed unionization effort suggests Everlane’s progressive instincts have hard limits. 

Dr. Fridell thinks we should meet these hard limits with policy. He proposes international regulatory mechanisms, a means of increasing equity in the system of global trade. This has worked in the past with coffee. In 1963, coffee-producing nations and coffee-buying nations entered into the International Coffee Agreement, which implemented a quota system to restrict the supply of coffee brought to market in an attempt to stabilize, and hopefully raise, the price.

Without regulatory mechanisms to ensure higher prices, fair trade becomes an experiment in ever-shrinking margins in order to compete. For example, Vetta Capsule, a company that markets itself as committed to transparency, sustainable fabrics, and responsible factories, broke down the cost of its $170 “oversized sweater” on its Instagram account. Together, the labor, yarn, shipping, trim, and transport cost $92.53, leaving a narrow $75.47 margin for stateside costs like marketing, distribution, and web hosting. To me, this tiny margin seems like a surefire way of exploiting your workers in other parts of the supply chain (like the “radically transparent” Everlane is alleged to have done) or getting clobbered by less-scrupulous multinational corporations. 

Doug Dirks, who worked at Ten Thousand Villages for nearly 30 years, including a brief stint as CEO, has a different perspective. He told me a story about a time when The Body Shop reached out seeking help sourcing handmade hemp exfoliating mitts. Dirks knew of a cooperative of women in Bangladesh who worked with hemp, primarily making rope and twine. He connected them and The Body Shop placed an order for about 1,000 hemp bath mitts. When the cooperative delivered the shipment, The Body Shop rejected it, saying that the macrame was of poor quality. Ten Thousand Villages stepped up to absorb the shipment and sell it in their stores at a near loss and committed to working with the artisans to develop their product. When The Body Shop reordered, the product met its standards. Today, if you buy a hemp product from The Body Shop it comes from that same cooperative.

Dirks is proud of that story and has a right to be, but I’m left with questions. Namely, wouldn’t a multinational corporation—especially one that seems to earnestly want to improve its trade practices—be in a better position than even Ten Thousand Villages to accept such a loss? 

While huge corporations can more easily absorb the associated costs of a one-off line of slightly more expensive fair trade products, companies like Vetta, Everlane, even Ten Thousand Villages itself, and smaller retailers like my dad’s business, are entirely dependent on their customers choosing to pay more for their product.

Fair Trade USA has acknowledged this critique in recent years, especially as the debate about what constitutes a living wage has heated up closer to home. In a recent white paper, the Fair Trade Advocacy Office commissioned two economists to create a formula for determining a living wage for workers on fair trade certified farms in four different countries. Their findings were pretty straightforward: a living wage should allow workers to afford the basics, such as healthy food, decent housing, education for their kids, and healthcare. The hope is now that a formula for a minimum wage has been established, workers will be able to collectively bargain for higher wages and better benefits. Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International claim to be in the process of ensuring that these standards are met by the organizations they certify, though they acknowledge that existing regulatory frameworks are inadequate.

If Dr. Fridell has his way, one day we could see fair trade products in major national retailers like Pottery Barn and not have to wonder if it’s too good to be true. We could also have more and better legislation that ensures our clothes and bed sheets are made by fairly paid adults, in safe working conditions, with the protection of a union. 

This is an ambitious vision, but a recent example shows that it can be achieved. In September 2020, smallholder farmers in India started protesting against neoliberal trade reforms that would supposedly “modernize” India’s economy but, in reality, would threaten farmers’ ability to collectively bargain for the highest possible price for their harvest. As the protests continued, Indian activists and farmers called on their Western partners, particularly self-described socially conscious wellness brands selling turmeric and other Indian traditional remedies, to express support and solidarity. Some did, such as Moon Juice, Golde and Rainbo, while others remained conspicuously silent. On November 3, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed the reform laws, delivering a victory to India’s longest non-violent protest. In light of this triumph, imagine the victories that could be ahead if fair trade advocates could align with activists to agitate for good governance, regulation, better working conditions, and environmental protections.

There is quantitative and qualitative data that suggests social enterprise and fair trade models can deliver significant benefits to individual workers, particularly to those who own their own enterprises or land. But, while fair trade business models may have the capacity to materially improve the lives of individuals, they are not—nor do they pretend to be—a path to a systemic transformation of globalized trade.

There is a lot of economic and social history between my dad importing his first container of coffee and my standing in Pottery Barn holding apparently fair trade sheets. My dad came of age in the ‘90s, during a series of neoliberal triumphs, as policies of tax reduction, deregulation, privatization, and austerity spread across the globe. At the time, there was consensus even among liberals and progressives that market strategies could be leveraged to eradicate extreme poverty and mitigate global inequality. 

Like many immigrants, my dad’s story is a confluence of sometimes hard-won, other times serendipitous, circumstances that gave him the opportunity to travel from his home country, Colombia, to study economics in Minnesota. He went to work as a financial analyst at a large engineering firm, but after nearly half a decade he became disillusioned with corporate America and set out on his own venture inspired by the trade ethics of a charming handicrafts market called Ten Thousand Villages. Unfortunately, the average consumer only has so much need for statement earrings, scarves, and heart-shaped rocks carved with the word “peace,” all of which Ten Thousand Villages is known for. My dad saw a potential solution to their problem: consumables. And as a Colombian, coffee was his obvious (if somewhat cliche) answer. 

After a lean few years, my dad built a profitable ethical food wholesaler called Level Ground Trading. By the time I was a teenager, Level Ground coffee was sold in grocery stores across the United States and Canada, including a five pound package developed especially for Costco. 

Throughout its history, the majority of actors in the fair trade movement—with some notable exceptions—have remained studiously apolitical. Instead of calling for regulation and worker protections when sweatshop scandals break, many of these brands pitch themselves as a safe alternative. This has gotten more complicated as fair trade products have become increasingly mainstream: Walmart, Target, and yes, Williams-Sonoma, the company that owns Pottery Barn, have all carried fair trade certified products for years. My dad thinks that this is unquestionably a good thing. I’m not so sure.

“The problem,” says Canada Research Chair in International Development Studies, Dr. Gavin Fridell, “is that corporations can’t be ethical.” For two decades, Dr. Fridell has criticized the fair trade movement from the Left, arguing that it is structurally limited because it relies on corporations and consumers to volunteer to pay a price that includes “fair” wages, safe working conditions, environmental responsibility, among other things, as opposed to requiring them to. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, when consumers in North America and Europe suddenly stopped buying jeans and started buying loungewear, companies supposedly committed to “corporate responsibility” such as Levi Strauss and American Eagle, canceled several orders, totalling a reported 1.5 billion dollars, leaving factories in Bangladesh to lay off thousands of low wage workers with little social safety net. Due to pressure from consumers on social media, some of these brands did eventually commit to paying out in-progress contracts, which the Worker Rights Consortium has been tracking, but because brands typically pay suppliers once a shipment is delivered, this did little to mitigate the immediate devastation for workers.

Even beloved fair trade brands fall short under the existing model. Self-described “radical transparency” pioneer, Everlane, laid off four customer service employees who had, just four days before, filed paperwork to get their union recognized. Before this, Everlane’s commitment to ethical sourcing and sustainable materials was nearly beyond reproach. Their clothes were accessible—more affordable than other ethical-ish options, yet worn by celebrities like Meghan Markle. According to reporting done by Jacobin, Everlane did eventually capitulate to some of the most important union demands, including a $19/hour minimum wage for customer service employees, paid time off, and other benefits. Despite the eventual resolution, the failed unionization effort suggests Everlane’s progressive instincts have hard limits. 

Dr. Fridell thinks we should meet these hard limits with policy. He proposes international regulatory mechanisms, a means of increasing equity in the system of global trade. This has worked in the past with coffee. In 1963, coffee-producing nations and coffee-buying nations entered into the International Coffee Agreement, which implemented a quota system to restrict the supply of coffee brought to market in an attempt to stabilize, and hopefully raise, the price.

Without regulatory mechanisms to ensure higher prices, fair trade becomes an experiment in ever-shrinking margins in order to compete. For example, Vetta Capsule, a company that markets itself as committed to transparency, sustainable fabrics, and responsible factories, broke down the cost of its $170 “oversized sweater” on its Instagram account. Together, the labor, yarn, shipping, trim, and transport cost $92.53, leaving a narrow $75.47 margin for stateside costs like marketing, distribution, and web hosting. To me, this tiny margin seems like a surefire way of exploiting your workers in other parts of the supply chain (like the “radically transparent” Everlane is alleged to have done) or getting clobbered by less-scrupulous multinational corporations. 

Doug Dirks, who worked at Ten Thousand Villages for nearly 30 years, including a brief stint as CEO, has a different perspective. He told me a story about a time when The Body Shop reached out seeking help sourcing handmade hemp exfoliating mitts. Dirks knew of a cooperative of women in Bangladesh who worked with hemp, primarily making rope and twine. He connected them and The Body Shop placed an order for about 1,000 hemp bath mitts. When the cooperative delivered the shipment, The Body Shop rejected it, saying that the macrame was of poor quality. Ten Thousand Villages stepped up to absorb the shipment and sell it in their stores at a near loss and committed to working with the artisans to develop their product. When The Body Shop reordered, the product met its standards. Today, if you buy a hemp product from The Body Shop it comes from that same cooperative.

Dirks is proud of that story and has a right to be, but I’m left with questions. Namely, wouldn’t a multinational corporation—especially one that seems to earnestly want to improve its trade practices—be in a better position than even Ten Thousand Villages to accept such a loss? 

While huge corporations can more easily absorb the associated costs of a one-off line of slightly more expensive fair trade products, companies like Vetta, Everlane, even Ten Thousand Villages itself, and smaller retailers like my dad’s business, are entirely dependent on their customers choosing to pay more for their product.

Fair Trade USA has acknowledged this critique in recent years, especially as the debate about what constitutes a living wage has heated up closer to home. In a recent white paper, the Fair Trade Advocacy Office commissioned two economists to create a formula for determining a living wage for workers on fair trade certified farms in four different countries. Their findings were pretty straightforward: a living wage should allow workers to afford the basics, such as healthy food, decent housing, education for their kids, and healthcare. The hope is now that a formula for a minimum wage has been established, workers will be able to collectively bargain for higher wages and better benefits. Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International claim to be in the process of ensuring that these standards are met by the organizations they certify, though they acknowledge that existing regulatory frameworks are inadequate.

If Dr. Fridell has his way, one day we could see fair trade products in major national retailers like Pottery Barn and not have to wonder if it’s too good to be true. We could also have more and better legislation that ensures our clothes and bed sheets are made by fairly paid adults, in safe working conditions, with the protection of a union. 

This is an ambitious vision, but a recent example shows that it can be achieved. In September 2020, smallholder farmers in India started protesting against neoliberal trade reforms that would supposedly “modernize” India’s economy but, in reality, would threaten farmers’ ability to collectively bargain for the highest possible price for their harvest. As the protests continued, Indian activists and farmers called on their Western partners, particularly self-described socially conscious wellness brands selling turmeric and other Indian traditional remedies, to express support and solidarity. Some did, such as Moon Juice, Golde and Rainbo, while others remained conspicuously silent. On November 3, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed the reform laws, delivering a victory to India’s longest non-violent protest. In light of this triumph, imagine the victories that could be ahead if fair trade advocates could align with activists to agitate for good governance, regulation, better working conditions, and environmental protections.

In the end, supply chains—ethical or otherwise—are efforts to manage friction. The existing system distributes friction, and many other things, with devastating inequity. The most vulnerable and least visible contributors to the supply chain are always the first to absorb friction. In the effort to address these inequities, my dad feels vindicated that multinational corporations are taking on some of the burden of ethical trade practices, and celebrates that some friction is being removed so consumers can make an ethical choice. Similarly, Doug Dirks argues that larger fair trade retailers like Ten Thousand Villages exist to absorb the friction of product development to empower vulnerable workers. Dr. Fridell argues that friction should be added to the existing system, in the form of regulating multinational corporations to mitigate their expansion and capacity for harm.

The way some fair traders, including my dad, talk, you would think that buying their product creates an inextricable connection between you and the producer. This is not strictly true. Supply chains exist to insulate me, the North American shopper, from the truth of consumer culture. Though it’s fun to know the names of the family members that wove your rug, to shake the hands responsible for your morning brew, or to look up the employees of the company who made your sheets on LinkedIn, buying something fair trade does not open a portal through the supply chain between customer and producer. 

The Bangladeshi girl I talked about at the beginning, who haunted me every time I bought from a fast fashion retailer, is also not real. And my concern about her, even my effort to buy mostly ethically-sourced clothing, does very little to improve the material conditions of her life. In order to be in solidarity with her, those of us desiring a more equitable system of global trade need to acknowledge that this cannot simply remain a friendly apolitical movement. Until then, I’ll take up an aisle in Pottery Barn and look up lot codes, just as my dad taught me to do.