Until 1865, most Americans consumed cotton, tobacco, sugar, and other goods produced by slave labor. Some dedicated abolitionists refused to use these products. Today, we face a similar problem, as many products that we consume daily are produced with forced or child labor, with farmers and artisans working for starvation wages, and in an unsustainable manner that damages and depletes the environment. Fortunately, we now have a better option than merely a boycott: We can insist on fair trade certification.

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Fair trade certifying organizations, such as FairTrade USA, are third-party organizations that certify that goods sold in this country meet the criteria for fair trade, including:

  • Paying a fair price to farmers and artisans for the goods they produce
  • Paying workers a livable wage and ensuring they work under humane conditions, while forced child labor is banned
  • Ensuring that these operations are sustainable, i.e., that the crops and products do not directly or indirectly damage the environment
  • Banning the use of genetically modified organisms and many harmful chemicals, and encouraging organic production

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These principles involve some of our core Jewish principles. Consider the Rambam’s words in Hilchot Mechirah 18:1: “It is forbidden to cheat people in buying and selling, or to deceive them.” Halacha demands that all parties (buyer, seller, workers, etc.) are respected. From slavery to colonialism to multinational buyers who dictate prices, the farmers of Africa and other regions have been exploited and underpaid for centuries. We must act to ensure that these farmers are paid a decent amount for their crops so that they in turn can hire laborers at a fair wage.

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Consider cocoa, from which our chocolate is produced. West Africa produces most of the world’s cocoa, with Cote d’Ivoire  alone growing 40 percent. While we may complain about the price we pay for chocolate, the farmers who produce cocoa are paid about $1/pound by buyers who fix the price at this unfairly low level. As a result, after expenses, West African cocoa farmers make about 50 cents a day. This in turn has led the farmers to use forced and child laborers to produce much of their cocoa. In a pattern reminiscent of the era of slavery, farmers have even resorted to bringing in forced child laborers from neighboring countries to fill out their labor force. A 2009 assessment from the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University found that 15 percent of children in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana reported that they had been forced to work in cocoa production within the past year. Many work with machetes and lift heavy loads daily, activities which, predictably, frequently result in injury. In fact, approximately 50 percent of child cocoa workers in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana were injured last year.

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Activists have centered their efforts to promote fair trade on the Hershey Company, which controls more than 40 percent of the U.S. market, but which has lagged behind many other companies in refusing to identify where it buys its cocoa. In response, the “Raise the Bar Hershey” campaign seeks to persuade the company to comply with requests for transparency and to begin the certification process for fair trade standards. Key to this is a plan whereby one of Hershey’s five top-selling bars made with cocoa will be 100% certified by third-party fair trade verification immediately, and then one more bar every 2 years afterward, so that all five bars would be fair trade certified by 2022. You can sign their petition and become involved in their campaign.

There have already been dramatic successes. Serving “Imagine Whirled Peace,” and donating profits, Ben & Jerry’s, Inc. was already known as one of the most socially responsible enterprises around. Ben & Jerry’s just announced an expansion of its fair trade commitment. In 2005, the company began to use fair trade cocoa, vanilla, and coffee for some of its products. However, activists pressed the company to expand fair trade to ingredients that comprise much more of the ice cream, such as sugar. Now, the company has agreed to switch to fair trade sugar and seven additional ingredients used in its ice cream products by the end of 2013. This will probably spur other companies to follow suit, further expanding the clout of fair trade consumers.

Thanks to organizations such as Fair Trade Judaica, where I serve on the Rabbinic Advisory Council, there are now fair trade certified gifts available such as Hanukkah gelt (dark chocolate from Ghana), kippot (from Guatemala), and Jewish blessing flags (from Nepal). They have helped design at least 20 new Judaica products, including the first fair trade tallit, tzedakah box, line of paper cut banners. They are working on getting kosher certification on many of these fair trade products. They have created a Jewish Values and Fair Trade matrix. Consider watching a film about fair trade to learn more. There have been studies in England exploring International fair trade labeling and by the European fair trade handicraft organization which operates separately from the food certification process. The movement to certify clothing is reported to be expanding.

Anyone who regards tikkun olam and tzedakah as guiding principles rather than abstract concepts should act to promote fair trade certification in all areas. Fair trade promises to end the exploitation and poverty that has plagued much of the world for centuries. Remember that poverty is the greatest evil, as the Midrash tells us: “There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty—the most terrible of sufferings. Our teachers have said: if all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all” (Exodus Rabbah 31:12). We must not exploit the economically weak so that a relatively few beneficiaries higher up the food chain can profit. While we have our economic problems, we can afford a few more dollars a year for our chocolate in exchange for promoting a just world. We must heed the words of the prophets who warn of ill-gotten wealth: “I, the Lord, probe the heart, and search the innermost thoughts, to repay every man according to his ways, with the proper fruit of his deeds. Like a partridge hatching what she did not lay, so is the one who amasses wealth by unjust means. In the middle of his life it will leave him, and in the end he will be proved a fool” (Jeremiah 17:10-11). Isn’t true empathy with the downtrodden and a commitment to tzedek worth a few extra dollars? We must advocate at local stores, work to expand fair trade certification and support and promote the options that already exist.

Rabbi Dr Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”