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Shopper’s Dilemma: Buy Fair Trade or Locally Produced?

Shopper’s Dilemma: Buy Fair Trade or Locally Produced?

Eco-minded consumers have a lot of options to weigh, and the labels and certifications designed to help us are often more confusing than helpful. Imagine this scenario: You’re holding two jars of honey; one is produced locally and the other is fair trade certified but produced a few thousand miles away. Which should you choose?

You might consider that buying products from small, local producers helps support the local economy. It also reduces the miles that the product travels and the related transportation carbon emissions. On the other hand, fair trade certification helps support workers’ rights, fair labor practices, and responsible land management in developing countries.

Both options have worthy goals. Unfortunately, when choosing between fair trade and locally produced products, the most ethical and earth-friendly choice isn’t always clear.

What Gets Fair Trade Certification?

Commonly certified commodities include:

  • Produce like bananas and mango, as well as other tropical fruits and their juices
  • Herbs and spices
  • Nuts and grains like cashews, quinoa, and rice
  • Beloved beverages such as coffee, herbal and leaf teas, and cocoa
  • Sweeteners like sugar and honey
  • Cotton and other textiles
  • Roses and other flowers
  • Products that contain a mix of ingredients — such as ice cream, chocolate bars, jams, and cereal — that include a fair trade-certified commodity

Many of these commodities can be locally produced in the United States (like rice, sugar, and cotton). Many cannot (like Madagascan vanilla) — or they’re not produced on a large enough scale to satisfy demand (like Florida-grown bananas or Kona coffee from Hawaii).

What Do You Value?

Being a conscious consumer often means hard choices. You may have to choose between the greater CO2 footprint of a fair trade product shipped from another country and the unsustainable land management practices of large industrial farming operations near you. Alternately, if there’s a local, responsibly produced option, it may be priced too high for your budget. These are all decisions that we each must make based on our own values and priorities, knowing that every product has an environmental footprint and the potential for ethical concerns.

Environmental Footprint

Fair trade products are often grown in regions where climatic factors provide an ideal setting for growth, as with coffee’s bean belt, and may not be easily replicated in the U.S.

While shipping is a key factor of international trade, shipping by air freight accounts for a massive amount of GHGs. On the other hand, “slow” shipping by sea freight has a much lower environmental footprint than air freight — while locally produced products will have a much lower footprint than those shipped by sea.

It’s unlikely you’ll know how your honey was shipped to the grocery store, but you can approximate the distance between your locality and the producing nation, which is likely larger than the distance between you and a stateside producer.

Ethical and Sustainable Livelihoods

While local products are generally more expensive than fair trade (which might be more expensive than non-fair trade options), they fit the higher cost of living. Both options have economic upsides. Buying local benefits the local community while fair trade is designed to boost producers in low-income countries.

Yet it can be difficult to know if any product is truly ethical. While the fair trade movement offers producers stable prices, market access, and more, research has revealed inherent shortcomings and inequities. Furthermore, the colonial pasts of so many products, including coffee, tea, cocoa, and banana, can cast a shade of doubt on their ethical production today, even when they are locally produced or bear ethical certifications.

Love of the Product Itself

If you can’t live without tea, coffee, or other commodities that aren’t locally produced, the best compromise might be a small, local business that supports producers abroad with fair wages, whether they’re certified fair trade or other verifiable standards. For example, buy sustainable coffee from local cafés with proven, long-term relationships with growers whose size makes it difficult to get certified.

To Buy or Not To Buy

Some companies provide great models for fair trade. Pukka Tea‘s Fair for Life certification covers the whole supply chain as well as producers in both developed and developing nations. And Dr. Bronner’s works primarily with small-scale producers to ensure supply remains sustainable. Unfortunately, many companies’ fair practices are not always so clear. And some consumers will ultimately decide not to buy a product out of environmental or ethical concerns.

We can’t always know the full story of a product, nor how the environmental or human impact compares at all stages of the supply chain. This is why the decision to buy fair trade or local largely depends on your values. Always weigh the benefits and make the best decision you can with the information at hand.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2021.

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