Gift-Wrapped Guilt?

By Frances Stead Sellers
Sunday, December 18, 2005

Earlier this month, there was a three-day sale of imported Oriental rugs at the Mennonite church near my house in Baltimore. "They are a little pricey," one of my neighbors warned me wryly, "because the workers are paid a living wage." What a concept! The last time I bought an Oriental rug -- years ago in Kashmir -- I haggled over the price with little thought for the well-being of the rugmakers. I was pretty sure most of the profit would go to the store owner, anyway. But now my already stressful shopping season -- garlanded with aspirations to find creative presents -- had been complicated by the intrusion of altruism: I was meant to worry about the workers.

So it was that I found myself watching another neighbor sort through piles of richly patterned, hand-knotted rugs, looking for just the right ruby tone to replace the threadbare floor covering in her dining room. She knew she probably wouldn't get a bargain that day, but she had been persuaded by the saleswoman's spiel that there was added ethical value to her purchase: Her investment would support Pakistani craftsmen and women (but no children, of course) who use looms donated by a charity, Jakciss, that is committed to building schools and promoting harmony between the country's Christian and Muslim populations.

I left the church with a warm feeling about an organization that was helping to maintain village life half a world away. But without a rug.

Buying a pricey Oriental would have been beyond my budget, I told myself, and was not, therefore, the right thing for me to do. I'd check out some cheaper handcrafts instead, and other goods sold to support traditional artisans and farmers in the developing world. That decision pitched me, walletfirst, into the moral minefield of the movement known as "ethical shopping."

Using buying power to improve the world is a growing commitment among consumers in this country, according to the rug sellers at the Mennonite church, who told me that increasing numbers of customers ask well-informed questions about the conditions under which their purchases had been made. And it has become big business in Europe, where a fair trade consumer guarantee was launched almost 20 years ago under the Dutch label Max Havelaar. The aim back then was to replicate the moral mindset that charities like Jakciss had fostered around niche handcraft markets and take it mainstream. According to the umbrella group Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) , there are now fair trade initiatives in 20 countries, including the United States, for such staples as cocoa, chocolate bars, orange juice, tea, honey, sugar and bananas as well as the ur-currency of the fair trade world -- coffee. Between 2002 and 2003, sales of these goods grew by 42.3 percent worldwide. But there is also controversy brewing about just who's profiting from the guilt-charged spending habits of the Western world's consumers.

The pervasiveness of those habits came home to me a couple of months ago when I was in Britain (the world's largest fair trade market). My usually frugal brother sought out ground decaf coffee with the distinctive green and blue Fairtrade logo -- and a higher price tag -- for me at the Sainsbury's supermarket. Matthew told me he's prepared to pay more for fair trade "if a couple of pennies go to the poor grower," and he also tries to support people who grow produce locally in Cornwall, where he lives. But, he says, he's not holier-than-thou about his shopping, and he sometimes finds that his two goals conflict. He'll cast an eye over the ethical shopping reports that appear in London's newspapers now that the movement has picked up enough steam to cater regularly to people like him. The liberal Guardian reviews the Ethical Consumer Research Association's "best buys," which allocates each purer-than-the-driven-snow product a numerical "ethiscore."

The knowledge that people like my brother will pick fair trade products first off the supermarket shelves has prompted many stores to advertise the fact that they stock fair trade foods. And that has led, others suggest, to an indigestible melange of entrepreneurship and ethics.

That, at least, is the contention of conservative commentator Philip Oppenheim, who argued recently that in Britain, it's supermarkets that profit most from fair trade sales. They charge a premium for fair trade bananas, for example, while a "minuscule sliver ends up with the people the movement is designed to help," he writes. I'm not sure whether he's right. And that's the root of the problem: I'm a consumer, not a trade expert. I'm more interested in finding fresh fruit than in investigating profit margins as I swoop bananas into my shopping cart. But if he is right, Europe's experience may be a warning. A Wall Street Journal story last year, about misleading labeling by some companies here, said that Cafe Borders adjusted its pricing after it was suggested that the company might be taking advantage of consumers' charitable instincts.

If this modern, mainstream incarnation of fair trade is under attack from the right by those who believe that free trade is the fairest trade of all, it also risks a hammering from those on the left who feel that all big business is bad business. As Julian Baggini, who edits the British-based Philosophers' Magazine, put it, ethical consumerism "is characterised by three almost religious convictions: that multinationals are inherently bad; that the 'natural' and organic are inherently superior; and that science and technology are not to be trusted." So anti-globalization activists criticize huge companies such as Levi Strauss and Starbucks, even though Levi Strauss was among the first multinationals to establish a code of conduct for its manufacturing contractors and Starbucks is one of North America's largest roasters and retailers of fair trade coffee. And both can probably afford to be more altruistic than many smaller companies.

These days, Starbucks should be able to harvest a steady crop of customers with a thirst for fair trade coffee. TransFair USA , the California-based FLO member that certifies imports to the United States, reported a 91 percent increase in fair trade coffee imports into the United States -- from 9.8 million pounds in 2002 to 18.7 million pounds in 2003 -- and a 76 percent increase the following year. When I went to a D.C. Starbucks on 15th and K Streets, near my office, I did find some green packets of Fair Trade Certified{+T}{+M} coffee beans tucked away at the back of a display stand, and they didn't cost any more than the other coffee. But when I ordered a cup of fair trade coffee, I was told there wasn't any -- and that I was the first customer to have requested it. Perhaps K Street isn't the best place to look for ethically aware buyers, but Starbucks itself exudes a corporate philosophy brimming with goodwill: As Chairman Howard Schultz wrote in his 2004 report, a company "can do good and do well at the same time."

At this time of the year, some people I know have taken the idea of doing good by buying well to greater heights than I ever will. Over dinner a couple of weeks ago, a friend told me what he was planning to give his adult sons this Christmas: a heifer (to be donated to a family in the developing world by Heifer International, the charity whose goal is "Ending hunger, caring for the earth") and a bag of stone-ground cornmeal (from an 18th-century Pennsylvania grist mill, which is preserved as a museum "for the pleasure and education of the public").

Unlike my friend, I'm prepared to toss a little tinsel over my conscience and spend some money for fun instead of for socially responsible reasons. Still, I did buy toothpaste from Tom's of Maine (which donates 10 percent of profits and 5 percent of paid worker time to charity). I bought stocking stuffers from the Body Shop, whose founder Anita Roddick is savvy enough to leaven her company's earnest mission statement ("To dedicate our business to the pursuit of social and environmental change") with such sprightly scents as "Zest for Satsuma" and "Perfect Passion."

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