Shoppers’ power coming to the aid of sustainable development

World Fair Trade Day highlights consumers' key role


Few environmentalists or economists doubt that the G-7 must take an active role in promoting environmental protection and economic prosperity in the developing world. To date, however, though the G-7 nations — the economic powers of the developed North — have dispensed substantial aid to the developing South, positive change remains elusive.

According to a new index that looks at the world’s 21 wealthiest developed nations and their policies to reduce poverty in poor countries, the United States ranks 20th and Japan comes in last. Of the G-7 nations, only Germany makes the top 10 on the “Commitment to Development Index.” All the others sit in the bottom half of the rankings: Britain 11th, France 14th, Italy 15th and Canada 18th.

“The G-7 are not leaders. . . . They have the greatest power to help developing countries, but . . . they generally use their enormous potential the least,” states the index report published in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

The index, created by the Washington-based Center for Global Development and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, ranks five small nations as most helpful to poor countries — the Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Fortunately, there is growing awareness among G-7 citizens of the gap between the quantity of aid given by their governments and the quality of change brought about. Increasingly, leaders are being urged to realize that enlightened self-interest in the North demands economic stability and environmental sustainability in the South.

Concerned consumers are also taking matters into their own hands by the consumer choices they make. Shoppers wield far more power than many of them realize. Consumer protests and boycotts have forced multinational corporations to change packaging policies (McDonalds), recognize human rights abuses (Nike), and alter raw-material sourcing (Mitsubishi).

Less well recognized is the fact that what you buy is just as important as what you don’t. Each yen, dollar or euro you spend is like a vote, and the companies that get the most votes win. If you buy products made with toxic chemicals or assembled by underpaid, overworked laborers, you are “voting for” dangerous, exploitive corporate practices.

Conversely, if you buy toxin-free goods that have been made and grown by producers who receive a fair and guaranteed livelihood, you are ensuring that those products and producers win market share and, more importantly, profits to sustain their operations.

So shop as if your world depended on it, because it does.

Consumers are turning to such “fair trade” goods in ever-growing numbers, and here in Japan the largest and fastest-growing fair-trade company is called just that, The Fair Trade Company.

The FTCo was established by British-born Tokyo resident Safia Minney in 1995. Today, under the brand name People Tree, FTCo has 40 employees in Tokyo at its Jiyugaoka office and store and five at its London store which opened a year ago. People Tree works with a network of 500 shops across Japan selling fair-trade clothing, foods, household goods, jewelry and handicrafts. Worldwide, the company works with 250 fair-trade groups in 20 countries.

For those interested in learning more, the time is right. May 17 is the second annual World Fair Trade Day, and events are planned in fair-trade shops and other venues nationwide. In Tokyo, the FTCo will sponsor an all-day event at the Teien Bijutsukan Dai-Hall in Meguro (details below).

World Fair Trade Day celebrates fair trade’s contribution toward the creation of a sustainable society, and its support and empowerment of producers in the developing world who are working to make a living and protect their local environment. “Fair-trade organizations work directly with marginalized producers in the developing world to secure a better deal, improve livelihoods, and promote rural development that respects the environment,” explains Minney.

Fair-trade organizations also help producers by providing loans and supporting producer groups in their quest to develop and to improve the quality of their products. “Fair trade promotes the use of appropriate technology, traditional skills and locally available natural materials. With higher earnings, producers become able to invest in sustainable production methods and environmental protection for their communities,” she says.

Using organic cotton is one way People Tree promotes conservation. “More than 80 percent of the fair-trade fashion collection sold by People Tree is made with 100-percent, certified organic cotton tailored in a fair-trade project in southern India. This project provides training and fair wages for needy women, including the deaf and mute, and proves that fair trade can benefit not only the environment and cotton farmers, but garment workers and the consumer,” notes Minney.

In Japan, one indication that fair trade has gone mainstream is that men are joining the business. “Women have traditionally been the driving force behind social and organic movements in Japan,” Minney points out, “but fair trade is now attracting high-caliber young men from traditional company backgrounds.” People Tree employs eight men full-time, whose backgrounds include commodities trading, editing, sales management at Ralph Lauren and Toyota, and degrees in economics and development.

Of course, in fair trade, too, survival requires that a profit be made, but as Minney notes, her business is all about people. “Why employ a machine when you can employ people?” she asks with a broad smile.