Fair Trade Media: Progressive by design.


One of the reasons for establishing Fair Trade Media was our desire to establish a series of ethical practices in design work. To us, behaving ethically means committing to actions that minimize our negative social and environmental impacts and that work toward creating a more sustainable and just society at the community level and globally.

In addition to our ethical considerations, we also do political work, which involves actively seeking to change the situation itself. We readily admit that there is no clear dividing line between politics and ethics, but here we use the latter word to describe the considerations that directly affect the way we do our media work.

What follows are some examples of our ethical practices, and, when our practice doesn't quite match what we'd like, our ethical ideals.

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Who we work with

When we accept money in exchange for work, it is recognized that the exchange is, ideally, advantageous for both parties. But what if one of those parties is having negative impact by, for example, imposing unsafe working conditions, polluting the environment, or benefitting from human rights violations?

The simple answer: we shouldn't work with them.

We prefer to work with:

  • Organizations that are committed to social justice before profit
  • Organizations that are run in a democratic and egalitarian fashion

By which we mean:

  • Workers' cooperatives
  • Trade unions and labour unions
  • Small businesses
  • Individuals (artists, writers, journalists, activists)
  • Progressive non-profit organizations and charities

We will not work with:

  • Any organization that has obstructed its workers from joining or starting a union
  • Significant polluters
  • Human rights abusers
  • Organizations that have given money to organizations with anti-social agendas (read: anti-choice, anti-gay, pro-corporate-tax cuts, racist, anti-immigration, pro-privatization, anti-Kyoto, the list goes on.)

We will consider working with:

  • Corporations (i.e. over 20 full time employees) with stellar human rights, and environmental records, and a progressive view of intellectual property, evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
  • Other corporations, in situations where we can clearly justify the work by giving a significant portion of the proceeds to people who are fighting against the impact of those corporations. How do we decide that it's justified? We ask the people affected by the corporation's activities what they think. We recognize that this will almost never happen, because the people who run corporations aren't stupid. But all rules have exceptions.

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First, do no harm. According the precautionary principle, we should first and foremost identify areas where our activities have a negative impact, and work to change that. A basic measurement of environmental impact is the ecological footprint model.

  • We use only energy efficient notebook computers in our work, and favour models with longer useful life spans.
  • We design with resource scarcity in mind: we make efficient use of space, and try to minimize the amount of paper and inks used while maintaining a clean, attractive aesthetic. We encourage our clients to use post-consumer materials when printing.
  • We do a significant amount of pro-bono work for environmental organizations.
  • Then there are the small things that add up to make an impact: reducing consumption and recycling; employing energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs; using second-hand office furniture.
  • One major source of waste (and climate-changing carbon emissions) is our reliance on goods shipped from far away. We partner with small, locally-owned businesses to supply products and print our work.

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Software and Freedom

According to the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman, "Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software." Free doesn't mean that people can't make money from software, it means that they can't do so by restricting other peoples' freedoms.

At Fair Trade Media, we're a bit torn. We believe that free software is an essential part of a just and equitable society, where the commons is not restricted for profit. That said, we rely on a lot of non-free software--Photoshop and InDesign, for example--for our work.

A combination of habit, a shortage of well-developed free software for design tasks, and an irrational attachment to Apple's Mac OS means we're still not a 100% free software shop. However:

  • Our web servers, and almost all of the web sites we host, run on free software.
  • Whenever possible, we use free software and recommend it to others.
  • We use free software and recommend it to others. Some examples include Cyberduck (FTP), Adium (instant messaging) OpenOffice and Firefox (web browser).
  • We support the development of a common, open standard RAW file format for camera images. In the meanwhile, we convert our digital photographs to Adobe DNG (Digital Negative), a publicly available archival format.
  • We run Linux on an old iMac that serves as a demonstration machine where colleagues and clients can experiment with an open source operating system.
  • Network Neutrality--the guiding principle that keeps the Internet free and open--is being threatened by major multinational corporations who want more control over what we access online. Fair Trade Media is opposed to these corporate encroachments and is part of the Save The Internet coalition.

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Standards Compliance

There are ways to tell a web browser to display things a certain way. Some of these are standardized by committees of interested parties, and some are developed by corporations that maintain sole control over the specification, which they use to increase profits. Examples include Microsoft's "embrace and extend" web standards like HTML, and Macromedia's Flash. There are a number of problems associated with this, starting with the fact that pages that contain non-standard code require the use of a specific web browser. We think that web sites should, ideally, be viewable on any browser. In the case of Microsoft, the development of non-standard code was part of a well-documented, nefarious strategy to undermine open standards and take control of the technical workings of the World Wide Web.

For these reasons, Fair Trade Media

  • Does not use non-standard technologies like Flash (if necessary, we'll use SVG)
  • Discourages clients from using non-standard software and features
  • Discourages everyone from using Microsoft software

The positive version of standards compliance involves generating HTML and CSS that are are valid according to the official specifications. There are many good reasons to generate valid html, which have been elaborated by others. We're not anywhere close to perfect (being, as modern human being are wont to be, short on time and long on the to do list), but at the very least, the page you're viewing now is valid. Additionally, Fair Trade Media

  • Doesn't use non-standard html (e.g. tables, the font tag) to control the display of our web designs
  • Is delighted when clients insist on valid HTML for their web sites

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It is important that web sites be accessible to people with disabilities. There are a lot of things that can be done to improve accessibility of web sites. We do a some of these things, and we don't do some of these things.

Fair Trade Media recognizes that we can do a lot more to make our web sites accessible, and we plan to integrate more accessibility-friendly features into our design practices as time goes on. As with web standards, we are delighted when clients are willing to put resources into making their web sites accessible.

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Social Justice

While one cannot hope to right the injustices by running a design shop in a particular way, there nonetheless exists a minimum that one should do to avoid perpetuating harmful norms and support those who are fighting to make things better.

For instance:

  • Being an LGBTQ-positive workplace
  • Buying Fair Trade products and advocating same
  • Supporting local agriculture and farmer-run distribution for our in-office and at-home food needs
  • When printing on t-shirts and other apparel, we work exclusively with suppliers that provide sweatshop-free products and who refrain from exploitative marketing.

But social justice goes beyond not doing harm. In the context of business, it involves actively imagining and practicing for the possibility of living in a just society. To this end, the Fair Trade Media collective is managed through democratic consensus, and is rooted in the principles of participatory economics.

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Our ethical standards and practices duly noted, it is not neccessarily clear what relationship exists between ethics and politics, either within Fair Trade Media or society at large. Are ethics presumed to be objective? Canada's Conservative cabinet (and many of their Liberal predecessors) would no doubt disagree with much of what we listed above, just as we reject their avowed ethical stand against same-sex marriage. What then distinguishes ethics from politics?

Ethics is defined by the American Heritage Dictonary as a set of principles of right conduct. A list of rules, in other words, much like the one we've provided for ourselves on this page.

Politics on the other hand implies action. Political action, however, is usually rooted in one's ethics. And as Randy Cohen wrote in The Nation, "often the only way to achieve an individual ethical goal is through group endeavor--i.e., politics."

Preceding every "decision" that individuals and organizations make to change their behavior is a political struggle. That means: not just changing behavior, but militating for changes by taking clear stands on difficult issues and insisting on just policies. This usually involves the exercise of power--in the form of direct action, demonstrations, or voting. Whether one speaks of Unemployment Insurance, Health Care or Pay Equity, major reforms would never have been possible without the pressure exerted on governments and corporations by social movements.

That's why we spend much of our time away from Fair Trade Media working on political campaigns. We do pro-bono work for activist groups, but we also actively participate in supporting non-corporate cultural initiatives, building independent media, anti-war work, and do solidarity work with struggles for the rights of Indigenous Peoples, immigrants, workers and poor people.