Community & Current Events

Shopping with a conscience

Candle set from Thailand, shopunicef.ca Image by: Candle set from Thailand, shopunicef.ca Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Shopping with a conscience

If you ever feel helpless when hearing about the plight of impoverished women and children around the world, you're not alone. Poverty in developing countries can seem like far too big a problem to tackle, and throwing money at the issue often feels futile (which isn't to say that charitable donations don't do any good). If you want to help work for small-scale, concrete solutions, consider shifting some of your purchases toward ethical, fair-trade shopping.

What is fair trade?
"Fair trade is a strategy for poverty alleviation and sustainable development," says Diana Mounce, communications and research coordinator for Ten Thousand Villages Canada. "It aims to develop producers' independence while ensuring that an artisan's basic needs for food, clothing, housing, medical care and children's education are met."

Basically, fair trade means paying a living wage for skilled work -- it's neither a handout nor a pittance for backbreaking labour. "Fair trade's purpose is to create opportunities for producers who have been economically disadvantaged or marginalized by the conventional trading system," says Mounce.

Eliminating the middleman
One of the inadequacies of the global economic system -- at least for those at the bottom -- is that goods often pass through many pairs of hands, meaning that only a fraction of the cost of most items in your local store actually makes it back to the producers. A number of businesses and organizations are trying to bring things back to basics by cutting down on the number of steps between artisan and consumer.

UNICEF, for example, sends a team on annual sourcing expeditions to find products to sell in its online shop. "UNICEF goes right into the village level and selects suppliers and vendors, being assured that there's no child labour involved," says Jerry Seligman, director of sales and marketing for UNICEF Canada. "We pay the locals for their services, helping them buy clothes and medicine, then UNICEF collects the goods centrally and sells them."

More than just trade
But ethical trade is about more than just the exchange of money for goods. Many groups also run or fund community programs, ensuring, for example, that children go to school, or training women to produce the goods that they then sell to earn income. "As we all know, the poorest of the poor in this world are women and children," says Mounce. "Many of our partner groups have the purpose of providing opportunities for women to earn an income, often through work done in their own home. In this respect, women can both earn an income and take care of their young children in the home."

At UNICEF, "it's the gift that gives twice," says Seligman, noting that the money from sales in their store is channelled back into UNICEF programs, often in the same regions where goods were produced. "It's a win-win situation."

You can make a difference
By supporting organizations that work directly with artisans around the world, paying them a living wage for their handiwork, you'll be helping those in need become self-sufficient. "Through fair trade, artisans receive the respect, dignity and hope that comes from working hard and earning fair value for their work," says Mounce.

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