With the natural introspection that comes from an economic recession, the "buy local" movement is gaining momentum. However, there are a lot of good things in life that simply don't come "local", at least not in these temperate climes! Tea, coffee, cotton, silk, spices, chocolate... to name just a few! Now, we could live without them... Nah, who am I kidding?! In any case, I don't believe that boycotting imported goods is really a good thing, since on the other side of those goods is another human being who depends on trade for their livelihood. I do, however, believe that those people, just like me, should be paid a fair and decent wage for their work - enough to support their families and invest in their futures.
According to the UK's FairTrade foundation: "Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers."
From a yogic perspective, I look at buying fair trade as an expression of the yama of Asteya, or non-stealing. When we buy goods that are sourced through exploitation, we are complicit in a form of "theft" - taking people's time and the fruits of their work without compensation.
Fair trade goods are likely to be more expensive than their regular competitors, but I like to think that when I buy my tea or coffee at fair trade prices, I am likely to value it more and use it more wisely, recognizing that it was produced by another person, halfway around the world, and that in some small way, that connects us.
Does FairTrade really make a difference? I think so. A few months ago I was lucky enough to attend a small lecture at Oxfam. The guest speakers were two women from Ghana, who are members of the Kuapa Kokoo cocoa-producing cooperative. They earn their living and support their families (and extended families) purely on producing and selling cocoa, that is turned into chocolate. Kuapa Kokoo is even more special than most - the cocoa farmers in the cooperative also earn a 45% share in Divine Chocolate, the company that turns the cocoa into (delicious!) chocolate and nets the profits from consumers.
The women who spoke to us told us what a difference fair trade prices, and dividends from the chocolate sales, make to their lives. One woman was supporting her sister's 3 orphaned children, and the other was paying for her younger siblings to go to University. Both women owned their own land - a rarity in West Africa as well as many other parts of the world.
So yes, I think fair trade makes a difference. And if the world is our backyard, then behind each of those products there is also a "local" farmer or producer, who depends on that commodity for their livelihood - to build their house, feed and clothe their children, and build a better future.
In the UK, fair trade goods are marked with the distinctive symbol. And while fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate are fairly easy to come by, other commodities like cotton are not yet consistently marked. However you can find fair trade lines at many major shops these days - including of course, the fabulous online Oxfam shop! And although the prices are high, at least when you buy fair trade goods, you know that you money is actually going to go to the producer, and not to the middle-man. It is a good test of our commitment to the yogic principle of generosity!