The USC Fair Trade campaign is overdue

By helping themselves to the great variety of breakfast foods along with cups of morning coffee at any USC dining hall, students have depended on millions of farmers and laborers around the world. More than 700 million of them live on less than $2 a day. 

The reality of global poverty and the unfair treatment of workers who are subject to below living wages, child labor and dangerous working conditions internationally has led to the Fair Trade movement. While many universities have made large strides to implement fair trade policies on campus, USC has been relatively absent from the campaign. 

In the past few decades, the decrease of trade barriers across the world has allowed the increased imports and exports and overall economic globalization. As large companies and countries accumulate more wealth, they gain at the expense of those most vulnerable — international farmers, workers and fishermen, especially in developing countries.

In response, Fair Trade was created as a global movement to promote an economic system that provides more opportunities to unfairly treated workers and holds businesses accountable with the vision of fighting global poverty and supporting sustainability. The organization’s funds often help support those in the workforce by providing workers with bicycles, access to schools, health insurance and numerous other resources that many are currently living without. Fair trade depends on individuals making choices based on ethical consumerism and sustainability in their daily lives and business practices.

Functioning as centers of education and change, universities have become major proponents for Fair Trade USA campaigns. In the past decade, major universities in Southern California such as UCLA, Cal Lutheran, Pomona and Loyola Marymount University have run strong multi-year campaigns on campus demanding more fair trade practices by their respective universities. They each completed a five-step process, including developing a fair trade resolution and committing to fair trade education, before becoming a certified Fair Trade University.

Absent from the ongoing Fair Trade Colleges & Universities Campaign is USC, whose declared profile on fair trade is almost entirely untouched. As a major institution in the fourth largest consumer city in the world, the University is far behind in implementing fair trade policies and education. It has a long way to go before catching up with its peers.

While USC’s Procurement Services and Sustainability branch considers ethical purchasing and fair trade groceries, much more needs to be done to address the lack of fair trade products and awareness on campus. To start, dining halls, the bookstore, USC Village shops and other on-campus vendors that sell common goods — groceries, clothing or any handicrafts — can purchase from and support more ethical sources. 

It would not be a difficult or costly change since dining services at other universities were able to use existing budgets to buy fair trade items. In UCSD’s campaign, for instance, a new policy was created that required all future food and vendor contracts to sell 100% fair trade coffee, tea and sugar. In addition, fair trade awareness is not only about product selection, but also representation. To take a step in this direction, the University can work to label and publish where its products have been sourced.

As consumers, students have both power and responsibility of what is consumed and produced. When deciding on their next purchase, students can look for fair trade labels from Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade America and Fair Trade Federation which ensure the companies have met strict and rigorous criteria in environmental, labor and developmental standards. Further, students should demand more fair trade products on campus such as coffee, tea and bananas in the dining halls. 

Beyond individual choices on campus, advocacy still holds the greatest potential for change. Students must get involved in campus organizations and push for the University’s Fair Trade Campaign. In the past, Fair Trade Campaigns were not started by university policymakers, but by student groups who considered the unjust treatment and living conditions of those affected by current trade policies and demanded change.

The Fair Trade Campaign cannot progress unless the public has a deep and holistic understanding of what the movement is built on — justice, sustainability and accountability. It relies on awareness of the interrelation of the global market, empathy and individuals willing to speak out, or simply, consume mindfully. One purchase at a time, a conscientious student can reach halfway across the world and help a family rebuild its home or keep a child in school.