If you’ve been into the Peace & Justice Center, you know how integral the three components of Racial Justice, Peacework, and Fair Trade Education are into all they do. While each staff member has their area of expertise, the collaborative nature of the PJC facilitates an atmosphere of multidimensional learning. Therefore, as the fair trade intern I wasn’t learning only about conscientious consumerism, but was pushed to take a look other factors at play like racism and colonization. Because of this, I’d say the PJC has been somewhat of a bubble for me. This bubble is far from the traditional one you’d equate with utopia like conditions of white picket fences and ever-smiling faces, but a bubble made up of people working hard to be critical and intersectional in their work.
With that, my understanding of fair trade has been one in which racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and access to education, are addressed in the same breath. Without this integration, true progress is unachievable. Whether supporting farmer-owned Divine Chocolate or participating in direct trade with David — a PJC volunteer who brings jewelry from a co-op in Niamey, Niger, fair trade at the PJC seeks to be producer-centered. To me this is what fair trade is about: As an individual who is on the benefiting side of capitalism, one of my few powers is to support an alternative system like fair trade.
At the Fair Trade Campaign Conference in Washington D.C. that I attended with PJC’s Fair Trade Program and Store Manager, Amy Crosswhite, I was confronted with the realization that the fair trade model I had put so much trust into is not immune to corruption and greed. Many things brought me to this realization including a lack of inclusion of workers, a lack of racial and economic diversity, and an emphasis on the power of the consumer.
It was a glaring red flag that there was extremely little representation from workers. This made the conference feel one-sided and disconnected. When you are missing an entire part of the equation, you will almost always get the wrong answer. In this case, the wrong answer entailed fighting for workers when workers were not even present. Instead, featured panelists included successful white people from Fair Trade USA, 1% for the Planet, and even the superstore, Kroger. What these people had to say was not all bad; their objective is to give consumers more opportunities to support fair trade products, which of course, I can get behind. However, why is it that while attending a conference about an alternative trade system which favors the producer, we barely heard from this body of people? Once again, the spotlight was on the white people who find themselves in charge.
As I looked around the conference hall it was like looking into a mirror. I became acutely aware of my presence as a white university student. The absence of key voices from the fair trade movement left it impossible for questions to be answered and to address certain topics. This was so concerning because this absence was the reason we needed an alternative trade system in the first place.
At the very least, my time at the Fair Trade Campaign Conference took me out of my Peace & Justice Center bubble. It showed me the importance of taking a step outside of your own work, your colleagues, your city, and understanding the systems at large. Globalization has impeded producers from having equitable, dignified, and sustainable opportunities politically, economically, and socially. I will start to believe that fair trade is achieving it’s true intention when farmers, producers, and growers, are the ones teaching and leading us. The fact that there was little diversity in the representation from Fair Trade Campaigns makes me question their motives. That being said, in order to move the dial forward, these critical conversations and reflections are paramount. May we all step outside our bubbles and continue to pop them.
– Alex Rose, former Fair Trade intern, current volunteer, future staff member