There was a time when most people didn’t give a second thought to where their morning coffee originated. They didn’t wonder who tended the plants, how much that person was paid or if they worked under fair conditions. They happily sipped, unaware of the working conditions that brought them that delightful brew each day.
That isn’t the case anymore. From coffee and chocolate to handbags and children’s toys, people care about the origin of the products they purchase. They look for the “Fair Trade” label and are willing to spend extra to ensure that workers are paid and treated fairly.
Topics like global poverty, justice, women’s rights and inequitable relationships can sound abstract and difficult to explain on a child’s level. So how can parents pass on their values and help their children understand Fair Trade? Actually, fairness is not hard for kids to grasp. (Most kids are quick to point out, “That’s not fair!” whenever they believe an injustice has been done against them.)
Food is a great way to introduce the idea of Fair Trade. Even very young children can be taught to recognize the Fair Trade label on food packaging. At the grocery store, ask them to help you find products with that label on it. Make it into a game – try to find three, five or more Fair Trade items in a shopping trip. Young kids also can learn to make choices. What are their favorite foods? If there is a Fair Trade option for it, find and discuss it. Chocolate is a good example because most kids love it, and Fair Trade chocolate is readily available in many stores.
For older children, introduce or expand their knowledge of world geography. Where does the food they eat come from? Much of the food eaten in the U.S. comes from around the world. Sugar comes from Malawi, raisins from Chile, tomatoes from Mexico and rice from India. Help older kids discover where their favorite foods originate. Locate the countries on a map or globe and use the library or internet to research the people and culture of that country. Seeing the faces of the people who produced their food will help foster compassion and a desire for those people to experience fair and safe working conditions.
Middle school-aged children can begin to grasp the abstract complexities of justice, and parents can ask questions to encourage their kids to think deeply about issues of fairness. Children this age start to take on small jobs like babysitting or lawn care. Parents can negotiate a “fair wage” with their kids for jobs done around the house. For jobs done outside the home, parents can ask questions to help their children understand why getting paid a fair wage is important. Would it be fair to mow the lawn for only 50 cents? What about five dollars? Why? Would it be fair to be paid the same amount to babysit five kids as opposed to only one? Why?
High school students about to enter adulthood often are spending and budgeting their own money on clothes, food and electronics. Parents can continue to guide them to make responsible choices and to learn about where the products they purchase come from and who makes them. High school-aged kids are capable of thinking logically and of drawing conclusions based on what they have learned throughout their childhood. A high schooler might enjoy choosing a product or country to increase awareness among his peers. Some might even get the entrepreneurial bug and develop a small business to help laborers in other parts of the world.
Fair Trade doesn’t have to be an overwhelming concept for parents to teach their children. There are lots of great resources—many online—to help guide you and your family’s choices. Start with one product—coffee or chocolate, for example—and build from there. Fair Trade is about creating a better life for those who grew, sewed, built, manufactured, and supplied the products in our stores and homes. Valuing Fair Trade products is really about valuing people, which is one of the most important things our children can learn.
April Karli is an Austin-based freelance writer and mother of two girls. She writes Sunday school curricula and articles about faith, children and parenting.