Commentary

Fair policies and fair trade products

Jessica Lettween

When I first introduce my organization to someone, a frequent response is, “Oh, my church sells Peace Coffee!” Fair trade is commonly associated with products: coffee, sugar, bananas, or chocolate. Certainly I am humbled by the impulse of congregations to use their buying power to create a world that better reflects a biblical view of society. For those who desire to create an even larger impact, Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition (MNFTC) offers a structure for individuals and community organizations of all sizes and scopes to extend this impulse through advocacy work aimed at reforming institutional policies.

When I say policy, think of the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the tri-country trade deal that served as the catalyst for formation of MNFTC. Twenty years ago, early NAFTA negotiations were taking place and many benefits of the deal were being touted to increase support for its passage. Founding coalition members were skeptical of the proposed benefits. Their concerns ranged from loss of American jobs and proliferation of sweatshops abroad to decreased state and national sovereignty and environmental destruction.

They were right to be skeptical as their concerns, and many more negative consequences, have been realized. While some benefited from the trade pact, even more were harmed. Corporations were granted greater rights than everyday citizens, and a horrible precedent was set in the way our country does business around the world.

“Oh, my church sells Peace Coffee!”

Churches and faith groups made up a large portion of MNFTC’s membership in the early years because of the moral implications associated with policies that placed corporate profits above the well-being of people and planet. Today, our 45 member organizations still include faith groups like Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis, and Witness for Peace, along with union, family farm, environmental, immigrant, and other civil society organizations. While each group may see trade through a different lens, all agree that our current national policies are dysfunctional and have joined together for the singular purpose of making trade fair.

Free trade vs. fair trade

Trade agreements trump any policies we create at the local, state, and national levels and the ways they are written often undermine domestic initiatives to stimulate the economy, fight hunger, or keep our water clean. By taking on the trade issue, we’re tackling a root cause of much global injustice.

Americans overwhelmingly oppose sweatshops and other work environments where rights are abused, but we still flock to businesses that offer the lowest prices on goods. More often than not, if we trace our purchases back to their source, we will find a very high cost is associated with that low price tag.

Fair trade, union-made, and Made-in-America products serve an important purpose in offering consumers an alternative to goods produced by less scrupulous means. Consumers can feel satisfied knowing their hard-earned dollars are more likely to be supporting good jobs, fair wages, and a healthy planet. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of goods and services come with a responsibly-made label. The only way we can change this is by changing our overarching policies that hold corporations to a certain standard.

Congress is currently considering three NAFTA-style free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. The outcome of these votes could very well determine how hard our collective work for justice will be for years to come. MNFTC is working to make sure these agreements don’t pass. However, as the only organization in the state focused 100 percent on trade policy, we can’t do it alone.

As consumers we have an important role to play in encouraging certain business practices. As voters our role is even more important. Members of Congress represent us by voting for or against things important to us. If we don’t make our views known, others will speak for us and we may not like what they have to say.

The pending trade agreements present an opportunity for congregations to engage in dialogue on the issues of fair trade legislation. Formats for dialogue could range from movie nights and coffee hours to sermons and forums. I offer MNFTC as a resource for such initiatives. Many congregations already have programs in place to strengthen communities and fill them with more love and equity. Integrating fair trade policy would help create a more holistic approach to that admirable work.

So when you think fair trade, think of the product, but also of the policy. Convert what you know into action, talk to others, and together we can truly make a difference in our global community.

Jessica Lettween is the director of Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, a statewide nonprofit working to create, promote, and support fair trade policy and a just global economy.

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