Trade is an important sector of the economy and a significant component in the development of human civilisation. It comprises the delivery, storage and preparation of goods for sale, as well as direct customer service. One of the oldest professions, the trader or merchant sells commodities produced by others in order to earn a profit. The merchant class was an important stratum of many pre-modern societies, although the social status of the merchant has varied considerably in different historical periods and societies. Many merchants achieved noble status during the European Middle Ages, while merchants, traders and pedlars belonged to the shang class in ancient Chinese society — the lowest of the four main social classes (the others being scholars/officials; farmers/peasants; and artisans).

Currently one of the most common professions in the labour market, would-be sellers typically receive practical training in order to develop specific skills in one of two areas: 

  • A retail merchant or retailer sells commodities directly to consumers, usually in small quantities. Shop owners, shop assistants and salespeople belong to this profession.
  • A wholesale merchant operates as a link in the chain between the producer and the retail merchant and typically deals in large quantities of goods.

In today's consumer society, and in the context of shifting roles between producers and clients, professionals such as merchants and sellers have an increasingly important role to play in protecting the environment and human health.
Current consumer demand is placing an intense — and unsustainable — burden on natural resources. The manufacture, use and disposal of goods are all taking a toll on our health and environment.

For most people in the developed world, shopping has become a normal part of everyday life. Shopping has even become a form of entertainment. Today it is common for people to go into a shop or supermarket without knowing exactly what they are going to buy: they shop to relax, to socialise, to check out new trends, or simply to satisfy an urge to buy something. This has a negative impact on quality of life. Rather than simply buying what they need (and choosing the healthiest and best-quality option), they are trying to satisfy a psychological need by accumulating unnecessary material possessions.

The packaging industry is one of the most dynamically developing branches of the economy. Packaged goods have a longer shelf life and are easier to transport. Packaging is an effective way of presenting products in an attractive way — the packaging is often more appealing than its contents. However, there is a high environmental price to pay for this glamorised exterior.

Packaging accounts for more than half the total volume of household waste. Vast amounts of raw materials and energy are used to produce packaging, which is simply discarded. Most artificial packaging materials take hundreds of years to decompose naturally, making the disposal of packaging a significant waste management issue.

Advertising and labels
Advertising is a form of marketing communication used to encourage, persuade or manipulate consumers to buy one particular product or service rather than another. We are surrounded by product advertisements everywhere we go.

Product labels convey information about the product’s origin, instructions for use, expiry date and appropriate disposal. Some of this information is required by national or international legislation, although very often labels are designed to mislead. People typically prefer products sold in attractive packaging, with bright labels and beautiful pictures, and they tend to give less thought to the information they contain. The advertiser’s task is to exploit such expectations.

The goal of eco-labels is to make it easier for people to take environmental concerns into account when shopping. Some labels quantify pollution or energy consumption by way of index scores or units of measurement. Others simply certify compliance with appropriate practices or minimum requirements for sustainability or environmental protection. Eco-label criteria take into consideration the whole life cycle of a product, from the extraction of raw materials through manufacture, packaging, distribution and use to final disposal.

Fair trade
The concept of fairly traded goods is gaining in popularity worldwide. The goals of the fair trade movement are to promote sustainability and to help producers in developing countries to achieve more equitable conditions. Members of the movement advocate the payment of higher prices to exporters, as well as higher social and environmental standards. The movement focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries, most notably of handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fresh fruit, chocolate, flowers and gold. The movement seeks to promote greater equity in international trading partnerships through dialogue, transparency and respect.
Merchants and sellers should be aware of the following principles of environmentally friendly trade:
  • The best packaging is no packaging.
  • Reusable packaging means lower costs and reduced environmental impacts with each use.
  • The fewer materials used per product the better.
  • Recycling packaging reduces the amount of raw materials used and the quantity of waste generated.
  • Biodegradable packaging has a lower impact on the environment.
  • Simple packaging uses fewer materials and less energy.

There are four ways to cut packaging waste:
  • Make one large, single package rather than packaging individual items/servings.
  • Use as little packaging material as possible.
  • Do away with internal layers of packaging.
  • Offer products in durable packaging that can be refilled and reused.

Although most materials can be recycled, this is not always the best solution. Recycling is a long process that requires energy and other resources. Better alternatives are to reduce the amount packaging used, or to reuse packaging.

Many shops now agree to take old electrical appliances when customers purchase a replacement. They also have collection points for hazardous waste such as batteries, light bulbs and small electronic devices.

Merchants and sellers can provide clear and easy to understand information to encourage their customers to opt for goods produced by manufacturers who are making efforts to be environmentally responsible. Environmentally friendly choices should be easily recognisable and clearly labelled as being energy efficient, free of ozone-depleting substances, made from recyclable materials, or fairly traded, for example.