Several months of research went into defining the principles that we use to evaluate each online store. We looked at the standards of fair trade organizations and certifying bodies, as well as the ethical requirements of other shopping guides.
Pulling from these sources, we selected the criteria we feel are most vital for the well-being of workers and most helpful in the eradication of poverty and modern-day slavery. We also tried to strike a balance between having strict, meaningful requirements and having requirements that stores can realistically meet.
We ended up with a list of seven principles, for which we screen every retailer that we consider for inclusion in the directory. Those that make the cut have met all seven requirements.
Applying Our Principles
Our approach is to do the same kind of research we do when shopping for ourselves: carefully reading stores’ policies and mission statements. We then document that research and share it with you. Below are the definitions of our seven principles and what we consider satisfactory fulfillment of each principle.
- 1. Fair Prices
- 2. Fair Wages
- 3. Prohibits Child Labor
- 4. Safe Working Conditions
- 5. Medical Care, Education, and Shelter
- 6. Environmental Efforts
- 7. Promotion of Ethical Principles
1. Fair Prices
The retailer’s website must clearly state that producers are paid a fair price for their goods, and in the case of agricultural products, that pre-harvest credit is available.
Explanation: A fair price is what is paid to the maker of a product, in order to cover the expenses of running a farm, workshop, or factory and to make a profit. (See below for how a “price” is different than a “wage.”)
Pre-harvest credit helps farmers cover overhead costs at the beginning of the growing season. This enables them to avoid selling their crops at too low of a price when the harvest comes in, which is a common occurrence when farmers are in immediate, desperate need of cash flow.
2. Fair Wages
The retailer’s website must clearly state that workers are paid fair wages.
Explanation: A wage is the amount paid to a worker on a per-hour or per-piece basis, whereas a price is the amount paid by a buyer to the producer group. We believe it is important for retailers to state that they both pay a fair price to producer groups and make sure that those producer groups in turn pay fair wages to their workers.
Currently, we do not require retailers to define or quantify what they consider a fair wage. We realize that it would be ideal to require a definition, as the dollar amount considered a “fair wage” differs from town to town and country to country. However, we found this requirement prohibitively exclusive—of the almost 200 stores we have researched so far, only one or two spelled out what a fair wage actually means in the local context of their producers.
In order to maximize the usefulness of our directory, we decided that a retailer merely stating that they pay fair wages is a satisfactory step at this time, since doing so raises awareness with consumers and is the first step toward more complete transparency.
3. Prohibits Child Labor
The retailer’s website must clearly state that child involvement in production, if any, does not interfere with well-being, education, and play.
Explanation: No child anywhere in the world should be forced to work without time to play and learn. In many cases, child work is acceptable, such as when the child learns a trade or helps earn income minimally, outside of school and for short periods of time. We realize that in some cultures, child labor is much more accepted than it is in the U.S. Our standards promote the idea that children should be safe, have free time, and obtain an education that can help them advance their communities.
4. Safe Working Conditions
The retailer’s website must clearly state that workers are provided safe working conditions.
Explanation: As in the case of fair wages, we believe that requiring a definition of “safe working conditions” would eliminate nearly all potential retailers from the directory. Therefore, we require only an assurance that safe conditions are in effect, not a definition of those conditions.
5. Medical Care, Education, and Shelter
The retailer’s website must clearly state that they are involved in the promotion and/or provision of medical care, education, or shelter for workers or their families.
Explanation: Workers in developing countries often lack access to necessary social services or institutions. We realize that not every retailer has the capacity to fully provide healthcare, education, or shelter for their workers, but we look for at least an effort to promote access to these vital programs. Examples of “promotion” could be allowing employees time off work to seek medical care, or giving employees information or guidance about how to access medical care, education, or shelter. Examples of “provision” could be establishing a school or clinic at the work site, or helping construct adequate housing.
6. Environmental Efforts
The retailer’s website must clearly state that they are making efforts toward environmentally-friendly, organic, or sustainable practices.
Explanation: This requirement most directly applies to farmer groups, such as those that grow tea or coffee. Depending on their product offerings, some retailers are exempt from this requirement, as their products may not have a major measurable environmental impact. For example, we do not require that a retailer selling only handicrafts or jewelry state its sustainable objectives.
Not every ethically-made product must also be stamped with approval from environmental organizations, but we do believe that if a product can be made with less waste, fewer or no chemicals, and ecologically-aware practices, then that is the route that should be pursued.
7. Promotion of Ethical Principles
The retailer’s website must clearly state why the retailer believes it is important and beneficial to follow the above practices.
Explanation: We want consumers to be able to get an idea of where a company’s heart is on social justice issues. The retailer should express interest in creating a better world and make an active effort to educate consumers about the benefits of ethical trade practices.
As you can see from the principles above, our approach is based on trusting retailers to be honest about their ethical practices. We do not have the capacity to independently monitor or inspect the retailers that we choose to include in the directory, nor do we collect any official documentation about supply chain, wages, or other information.
However, we do our best to make sure our recommendations are indeed ethical. In the Ethical Features section of each retailer’s entry, we make sure to note if the store is a member of any ethical trade organizations, which typically have stringent membership requirements based on inspections and reporting. We also primarily focus our research on retailers that have already been endorsed by other ethical organizations or shopping guides.
That being said, we cannot guarantee that any stores we recommend do in fact live up to their ethical claims. If you ever have doubt about a store you encounter, we encourage you to do your own research or contact the store for further information.