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Fair Trade?

Readings: Leviticus 25:1-17, Matthew 20:1-16

What might "fair trade" mean? Playing "fair" often means playing by the rules, but when we use this phrase we also assume the rules are fair. Moreover, competitive play involves officials or referees to enforce the rules. In other words, fair play is more than an attitude. Fair play also requires a system that prevents some players from taking unfair advantage of others.

So, what would a fair trade system look like? Would it be the same as our present "free trade" system? These questions may be difficult to answer, but certainly they are worth asking.

The readings for today are not directly about "fair trade," but they concern economic relations and raise questions about what is fair. In Leviticus 25:1-7 God speaking through Moses commands the Israelites to observe a sabbath for the land every seven years. Allowing the land to rest not only is good for its continuing fertility, but also forces the people to acknowledge that the land belongs to God and not to them. In Leviticus 25:8-17 the Israelites are commanded to observe a Jubilee every fiftieth year by relinquishing land they have purchased or leased and returning to the land originally owned by their tribes. This program of wealth redistribution again forces the Israelites to remember that the land is Godís, but in addition it reduces the causes of jealousy and a sense of unfairness among tribes that are unequal in size and perhaps also in business sense.

The New Testament parable in Matthew 20:1-16 also isnít about "fair trade," but the laborers who worked longer for the same wage as those who worked fewer hours complain about being treated unfairly. And if "fair" means "equal pay for equal work," then the landowner has treated them unfairly. He says he has paid those who worked longest what he and they agreed to Ė "the usual daily wage." (v. 2) The landowner argues that paying the same daily wage to those who worked fewer hours in no way is unfair to those who worked longer.

The parable may be read as an allegory representing the salvation that God offers in Christ both to Jews, who have labored as Godís people for centuries, and to Gentiles, who in the generation of the apostles have begun in the church to labor for the kingdom of God. Nonetheless, the parable is an economic story that challenges us to think about what is a fair wage for day laborers, many of whom may not be hired for a full day of work. Given the surplus of workers, the "usual daily wage" is probably just enough to live on. In that case, the owner of the vineyard gave each of the laborers a "living wage" for the work they did that day, regardless of the hours each one worked. No one who worked had to go hungry that night.

These readings may seem hardly applicable to our globalized economy, yet they allow us to discern a few challenging principles. First, land and the wealth it yields are not simply a human possession. Second, justice and peace will require an economic system that checks great inequities in ownership. And third, anything less than a living wage can hardly be fair.

Whatever you may think about applying these principles to our present economic circumstances, I hope you will agree to support "fair trade" in coffee. This simply means buying coffee that is certified by a Fair Trade Organization, such TransFair USA, and also encouraging retailers to sell this coffee. As stores such as Safeway and Trader Joes carry Fair Trade coffee and Starbucks sells it, advocates for Fair Trade coffee run no risk of being called Communists. The Fair Trade movement is not an attack on capitalism. Instead, Fair Trade is a way of making free trade "fair" for the laborers and producers of coffee and other products, as well as beneficial for the wholesalers, shippers, and retailers.

When TransFair USA puts a "Fair Trade Certified" logo on coffee it means the importers paid the farmers a living wage for the coffee they grew. Today this is $1.26 per pound, at a time when coffee on the New York Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange yields only $0.46 a pound. How can coffee that costs the importers more be successful in our market economy? The Fair Trade process cuts out the middleman, which reduces that cost. But the bottom line is that consumers are willing to buy Fair Trade coffee at a higher price than non-Fair Trade coffee, and consumers are demanding that retailers sell Fair Trade coffee. Retailers will respond to consumer demand.

Some Fair Trade coffee is also certified as "organic," if it is grown without the use of toxic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. This makes the coffee beans healthier for the consumer, and also the environment better for all of us including those who work in the fields.

Fair Trade coffee may also be labeled "shade-grown" or "bird-friendly." This means the farmers have not cut away the forest canopy, which is a technique for shortening the time it takes for coffee beans to ripen. Unfortunately, cutting down trees to speed coffee production deprives birds of their nesting habitat and exposes the soil to erosion. Moreover, coffee drinkers, who have compared the taste, claim that "sun coffee," as this more rapidly maturing crop is called, has less flavor than "shade-grown" or "bird-friendly" coffee.

So, what marvelous choices our free market (and a lot of effective lobbying) has given you! For the extra price of about 3 cents per cup of coffee, you can support Fair Trade with a fair price for farmers, organic methods of farming, the preservation of trees and the birds that live in them, and enjoy more flavor in your coffee as well.

Of course, this does not solve all the problems of our global economy, but no good choice should be held to such a high standard! Here is a "fair trade" alternative that is good for all those involved, especially the farmers in poor countries where most of our coffee is grown. Moreover, supporting Fair Trade coffee might inspire us, and others, to lobby producers of other goods to join and abide by the rules of the Fair Trade Federation. When you shop, look for the Fair Trade Federation logo on products, and tell your retailers that you want to purchase products marketed by members of this Federation, who have agreed to enforce Fair Trade standards in all their productive relationships. (To find out companies that are members of the Fair Trade Federation call (202) 872-5329 or go online to www.fairtradefederation.org.)

Ancient Israelites and contemporary Jews have not kept the commandments in their scripture to give land a "sabbath" every seven years and to redistribute land every fifty years. Nor have Christians lived out the parable of the landowner, who gave each of his laborers a living wage. Pursuing "fair trade" in our time is a way of putting our faith to work by living the "spirit" of these teachings. Amen.

11 August 2002


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