Ethical vs. Fair Trade, let us change the narrative

We are now entering into a sensitive subject that I am greatly passionate about. I will only begin to touch the surface as I can become pretty long winded if you get me started.

I wanted to introduce these two words that we are hearing more often than not.

Ethical and Fair Trade.

I actually cringe a little putting them on the same line because they are vastly different in terms of the actions it takes to fulfill these terms. In our new and growing socially conscious consumer world, we tend to use these words interchangeably, but let me define these for you.

Ethical is relating to moral practices and avoiding activities that do harm to people.

Fair Trade is simply a trade between companies in developed countries and producers in developing countries in which fair prices are paid to the producers.

You can be fair trade without being ethical in your practices, but you cannot be ethical without being fair trade.

There are many fair-trade companies around the world that are meeting industry standards and paying fair wages that match the minimum wage of the developing country they are purchasing from and the truth is, that is something to be proud of.

My challenge to fair-trade is what practices are we implementing to create sustainability? If we have the purchasing power, then how are we using it to create long term change and empowerment versus a short-term purchase to possibly never returning to that artisan again?

Are we giving artisans around the world a shallow hope, not allowing them to foster into deep roots that create the opportunity for them to flourish?

We are better than this.

As an ethical business and consumer – you care not only encompassing fair wages into your practices, but you are caring about the entire process as a whole. You are putting on a holistic lens and viewing it from a bird’s eye view, allowing yourself to see every angle of the process. It is not just about the transaction of goods for fair wages, but it is about the artisan, their family, their community and their future.

Ethical is about morals, building a foundation of trust and deep relationships that are honoring, uplifting and empowering. Ethical is a step above fair-trade because it is bridging the gap for the artisan’s well-being from surviving to thriving.

As I finish my last year of my doctorate – my research is focused on sustainable development in social enterprises. This May, I will receive a graduate certificate in corporate sustainability and innovation from Harvard extension school, the end of this year I will defend my thesis and in May 2021, I will proudly walk the stage with a doctorate in hand. The last four years have been a journey, but I would not change any of the long nights or heavy reading assignments because it has made me better for you.

To say that I just care about this topic is a bit of an understatement. I live and breathe ethical, sustainable, conscious consumerism and deeply care about not only making systems better, more efficient and ultimately empowering to those involved, but I also care about educating others.

It is through education that true empowerment comes, and I want you to be a part of this process and narrative. For a social enterprise to be able to attain sustainable development in all realms – social, economic and environmental – it is and will continue to be a challenge, but the more we educate ourselves, the greater impact we will have on the system as a whole.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will go deeper into this subject of ethical vs. fair trade as well as share some case studies that will allow you to practically apply it to your business or every day conscious consumer choices.

From your overly passionate ethical educator,

Quick Strategies for Identifying Ethical Suppliers

At Imani Collective, I have had to find suppliers that are not just reliable but care consistent and meet my standards. It has been a fun journey over the last decade and I continue to learn. My biggest advice is never stop learning, always be teachable, flexible and ready to adapt where you need to. For our sourcing at Imani Collective, here are some quick tips for today of how I identify an ethical supplier.

1. Location
Location is a big deal for me. This is not everyone’s top priority, but because we work in Kenya and we care about growing this economy – we source everything locally. We do not import any materials, zippers or small hardware pieces. This can make for a challenge when we are prototyping a new line item and quickly realize there is an

element we can not make or do, but this helps our team stay creative and innovative. It also reduces our carbon footprint as a company because we are not importing goods.
So, my supplier has to be in Kenya. I would advise you to think about not just who you want to work, but where. This plays into labor laws, ethics and logistically – shipping times and costs.

2. Value of Relationship
Relationship is key and many times this decision is made with my gut aka my spirit. If I meet the supplier whether in person or on the phone, I try to be intentional with how I am feeling during and after the conversation. Yes, there will most likely be cultural differences, which could shape some of these feelings, so you need to be able to identify those, but otherwise, if you feel uneasy then step away. Any contract can be shifted, and you want to feel good with who you are working with especially if you are doing this overseas and only have phone/email communication. Find
someone who values relationship, communicates effectively and a person you trust in the process. You are essentially building your whole business possibly on this key relationship, so make sure it is a good one and you are happy with them, vice versa.

3. Ethics: Treatment and standards of employees
This is big, ya’ll.
Make sure their standards line up with yours. This is going to take some deep work ahead of time before you can truly compare, so you need to ask yourself:

  • What are my standards?
  • What do I consider fair wage, is that minimum wage or more?
  • Do I expect my supplier to give his employee bonuses or incentives?
  • How do I define fair trade and is my supplier meeting these standards?
  • How do they treat their employees? Is my order helping them or hurting their ethical standards (like working overtime and not getting paid, etc.)

You need to know what you stand for and be not afraid to ask the hard questions. I would even create a 1- pager of your standards, values and possibly have your supplier sign an agreement that they meet these standards. This can always be a part of the original contract because truth of the matter is, if you ever go and visit or find out something you are not happy with, you have this paper to lean back on and explain that you have ethics you believe in and they need to be met. This might sound like a lot, but it only makes the integrity and work space of your supplier that much better. These might be even things that they have not thought about and it is good to challenge the system because we truly have the power to change it.

4. Site Visit (if applicable)
I had mentioned about this last week, but if you can do a site visit then I find this very important. If you never been to the country you are sourcing from, I would do some cultural research ahead of time to be prepared for differences. I like site visits to not just check in on the supplier and continue to build that relationship, but it helps with your own understanding of the process. The more you are confident and comfortable with that process then the better you can tell that part of your story to your customer.

Remember, you are always growing and learning. Together – we can make systems better both in the supplier and consumer worlds.

5. Transparency in systems and reports
I would ask for reports. True ethically ran businesses will not mind giving you impact reports or being transparent with their systems. The more transparency – the better the system. This is showing you that they allow for accountability and care about upholding a just system. If they are putting their numbers and impacts statistics on an annual basis (and sometimes quarterly) then they want you to be a part of their story – this is good. The more transparency then also, the better you can tell the story of your ethical sourcing and why it is important to you and the future of your company.
Overall, ethical sourcing is very important. We have the power to create systemic change in the consumer world. We can create better standards through our buying power and fully understanding our impact. Find your values and check points for funding suppliers and feel confident in them. Find relationships you can build upon and then more importantly, share your story. Let others be a part of the journey.


From the ethical buyer and conscious consumer – encouraging you to do better,