Is there a relationship between Fair Trade and language vitality?

Now that I’ve returned to NZ, I’ve started volunteering in a local Fair Trade store. Before moving to Japan, I’d volunteered there for around five years. Naturally, my motivations for volunteering are largely ethical.

As consumers are now increasingly aware, Fair Trade can empower economically underprivileged individuals and communities. It sidesteps the race-to-the-bottom model that many modern corporations force on suppliers. There are often environmental benefits as a result of traditional, sustainable production practices. I knew all this. But I’d never considered that there might be linguistic benefits for communities too. After all, language and society are tightly linked.

So here’s the idea. If urbanization and the perceived benefit of knowing a global/majority language are drivers of language loss/shift, what happens when you encourage the creation of sustainable local economies? Is there a greater chance of maintaining the local language(s)?

I have no idea. And as far as I can tell, there aren’t any studies which have tested this hypothesis.

But I would like to think that increased language vitality for communities’ native languages might be a further positive outcome of Fair Trade. It certainly sounds plausible on paper.

Whatever the impact Fair Trade may have, however, it’s important to remember that groups producing Fair Trade products are incredibly diverse. Silence works with deaf and differently-abled people in Kolkata to produce candles, soaps and other products. The OCFCU is a gigantic coffee cooperative in Ethiopia made up of 217 smaller cooperatives. While there are some economic parallels, the sociolinguistic context differs greatly.

Consequently, to really address the question of whether Fair Trade can contribute to maintaining linguistic diversity, you would need to focus on a subset of Fair Trade producers. Namely, ones that are:

  • located in areas that speak one or more minority languages and in which language shift is (or has been) occurring.
  • composed of members who represent the area’s wider population socially and linguistically, i.e. not just differently-abled/deaf people, women, etc.
  • preferably non-urban.
  • preferably engaged in a traditional, local craft.

No doubt there would be other factors to consider, though the above would help narrow the scope.

I would love to see some research on this. Whether Fair Trade has any impact on language diversity or not, the results would be fascinating, particularly for those involved in language revitalization. Feel free to reach out if you know of any work that’s been done (or are planning to do some yourself). It’d be great to hear what you’ve uncovered.