Kim Mitchell stands behind the register at Ten Thousand Villages in Hyde Park and sorts through a sparkling array of earrings newly arrived from India. The volunteer employee pauses for a moment and looks me in the eye, "I really believe in what Ten Thousand Villages is doing," she says. "They're empowering people, and letting them live off their skills."
WHAT IS FAIR TRADE?
What they're doing is termed "fair trade," a system of commerce based on the ideals of social, economic and ecological justice. Fair trade practices ensure that craft and farming cooperatives in developing countries receive a fair price for their goods. The system also promotes safe working conditions, sustainable production methods and transparent business relationships. Forced labor and child labor are strictly prohibited.
Fair trade organizations in the United States and Europe work to cut out the middleman. Ten Thousand Villages is one such organization, and Kenya-born store manager Keziah Sullivan explained that the direct relationships between buyers and producers allow low-income artisans to compete on an international scale. She said, "We work with village craftspeople who would never have an opportunity to sell their art in the first world. At the same time, we pay them a fair wage for what they do in their own set-up."
But what constitutes a "fair" wage? By fair trade standards, it is at least as much as a given country's minimum wage. Fair trade advocates, however, understand that a minimum wage rarely provides enough income to cover a family's food, housing, education and health care needs. For Sullivan, a fair wage is a living wage. "Artisans should be able to stretch their dollars and still have something left over," she said. "If the minimum wage, for instance, in Kenya was $25 per day, we would pay one and a half times that."
Fair trade producers also benefit from long-term relationships with fair trade organizations. Because the trading process is conceived as a partnership, many fair trade organizations provide the financial assistance needed to help producers establish production workspaces, implement marketing programs, improve management skills and enter new markets. They also guarantee prompt payments and fund projects such as schools and health clinics that benefit entire communities.
The long-term relationships further provide stability and enable producers to look to the future. "Our producers can depend on us," Sullivan said. "We've been with many of them 30 or 35 years. They know we will not change our price in the middle of a production run. They know next year we'll be back. In fact, every year our orders go up 5 percent. They can bank on that."
Fair Trade and Women
According to Co-Op America, a non-profit organization committed to creating a socially just and environmentally sustainable society, women comprise 70 percent of the 1.3 million people subsisting on less than a dollar a day. Fair trade seeks to remedy this situation by promoting equal pay for women, encouraging their participation and leadership at all levels of business, and investing in programs that bolster women's self-esteem and independence.
As a result, 60 to 70 percent of all fair trade artisans are women. Sullivan said. "I think this has come about because in developing countries, it's the women who suffer the brunt of poverty. They see their children going without food, without medication. They're always looking for ways to support themselves and their children."
Fair trade practices are not limited to developing countries, and the Women of Color Alliance (WOCA) has successfully implemented a fair trade program that provides a source of income to Native American women in the United States. "At WOCA, we realized that poverty is the main hindrance for becoming socially engaged," said WOCA Co-Director Sonya Rosario. "This is why we decided to pilot this program with the Duck Valley Reservation in Southeast Idaho." Duck Valley's unemployment rate hovers around 75 percent.
According to Rosario, seven Shoshone-Paiute women are participating in their fair trade Campaign. Drawing on a cultural tradition of beaded art, the women sew beaded earrings, necklaces, and other items. With WOCA's assistance, they have found profitable markets and are selling their goods on a much larger scale. Rosario explained, "We believe that economic self-sufficiency is so vital to realizing our goal of institutional social change that it must be included in any work that we do."
Fair Trade and the Environment
Fair trade is also an environmental issue. "We encourage our partners to use environmentally friendly materials," Sullivan said. "We teach them about it. In Kenya, for example, Ten Thousand Villages stopped buying from one cooperative because the carvers used hard wood. The company worked with the artisans, and they now maximize soft wood in their art. They also plant two trees for every one they cut down. "That's one of the things that's so beautiful about fair trading," Sullivan said. "It's all love."
Co-Op America believes paying farmers a fair wage provides the economic stability that allows them to preserve their lands for future generations. In several cases, cooperatives in developing countries have invested their profits in environmentally sustainable milling systems or instituted tree planting programs.
Fair trade also encourages sustainable agriculture by relieving the pressure to increase crop yields through clearing forests and using chemical pesticides. Casey O'Leary, co-owner of Earthly Delights Sustainable Landscaping, upholds Costa Rica as a good example of fair trade practices benefiting the earth. "Fair trade has provided a market for coffee beans grown organically under the shade of the rainforest canopy. As a result, the 'slash-and-burn' practices that devastated much of the country over the last half century are becoming less commonplace, as are the negative environmental effects of that practice-desertification, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, erosion, flooding and the resulting need for chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides."
Environmental practices in developing countries impact people in the United States and the rest of the planet, too. "The environment isn't some abstract concept-it is our life support system," said O'Leary. "Every activity that damages the stability of the system in one part of the world will also damage it in other parts, because the same air and water are constantly circling the planet. By supporting fair trade, we protect our own life-support system by allowing other countries to do business in ways that protects theirs."
Fair Trade Is not Free Trade
Fair trade should not be confused with free trade. Free trade is a systematized effort to lower tariffs and other trade barriers around the globe. Free trade agreements have names like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and they're enforced by transnational organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The international human rights organization Global Exchange believes that free trade's obsession with profits exploits small low-income businesses. Sharp drops in coffee prices, for example, can force independent farmers out of business.
"In free trade," Sullivan explained, "the buyer always has an edge over the producer. They can say you have to go down 5 percent because they have another producer in China who is willing to go down 5 percent. They don't take into account what commitments these people have, such as a bank loan. We take all these things into account."
The Fair Trade Federation, an association of fair trade wholesalers, retailers, and producers, decries trade agreements such as NAFTA. They maintain such agreements remove needed trade barriers and protect the intellectual and property rights of major corporations without offering equal protections to workers and the environment.
Free trade is driven by profit, fair trade organizations are not. Fair trade groups are in the business of creating opportunities and empowering low-income people and cooperatives, and promoting sustainable growth and development.
Fair Trade Coffee
Fair trade organizations have worked diligently to ensure that small coffee growers receive a minimum price of $1.26 per pound for their beans. Coffee futures on the New York Board of Trade have sold for slightly more recently, but because fair trade growers avoid a middleman, they're still better off.
Fair trade coffee is becoming ever more prevalent in the United States. There are more than 50 American companies importing and roasting fair trade coffee, and over 100 companies who sell it to the consumer. About 85 percent of Fair Trade Certified coffee is organic and shade grown.
What's in a Fair Trade Label?
Many coffee bags carry a Fair Trade Certified label or a Fair Trade Federation label. Chocolate, tea, bananas and other fruits also bear the seals, which warrant that the producers earned a fair price for their product and that their working environment was safe and equitable.
"All of our coffee is Fair Trade Certified and carries a Fair Trade Certified logo," said David Nichols, owner of Buzz Coffee & Cafe. "This includes our brewed coffee, espresso, and packaged whole bean coffees." Nichols and his wife witnessed the poverty of Guatemala firsthand, and it was foremost in their minds when they opened Buzz. "Buying fair trade has the immediate impact of delivering more money to the cooperatives and other cultivating organizations upon purchase," Nichols said.
TransFair USA is the only independent, third-party agent responsible for certifying fair trade products in the United States. They emphasize that the majority of Fair Trade Certified goods are organic and shade grown, and thereby foster biodiversity, provide shelter for migratory birds and help reduce global warming.
Dave Ledgard, owner of Dawson Taylor Coffee, upholds the ideals of fair trade but does not carry products with the Fair Trade Certified logo. He said, "Instead of relying on third party brokers to certify our products, we visit several independent coffee estates every year and directly purchase a majority of our coffees from individual growers. This allows us not only to honor our suppliers' hard work, but also to affect their lives and operations on a personal level."
Supply is high, but where's the demand?
Only about 20 percent of all fair trade-produced coffee is sold at fair trade prices. Why? Supply greatly outweighs demand. Too few companies are willing to buy at fair trade prices, compelling many low-income farmers to sell their crops at prices at less than half the value of the commodity's worth.
Nichols attributes the low demand to a lack of awareness and a lack of commitment. Ledgard agrees. He said, "It doesn't affect a lot of people on the personal level as it does with us, working directly with the producers of third world countries. Consumer awareness and caring hasn't caught up with the supply at this time."
Nichols further believes major roasters and retailers should commit to selling only Fair Trade Certified products. He said, "Starbucks offers one or two packaged whole bean products that are Fair Trade Certified, but they do not use fair trade espresso beans or even brew fair trade coffee for their drip coffees. Yet they are happy to hang up a large poster in their coffee houses extolling the benefits of fair trade. This is not to say these companies are evil, I just don't appreciate the duplicity that is represented in many of these companies."
How Much Green for a Cup of Fair Trade Joe?
The price of a fair trade cup of coffee runs about the same as any other gourmet coffee. This is because fair trade removes the middleman, thus reducing the mark-up costs associated with conventionally traded brews. Nichols is committed to keeping fair trade prices competitive at Buzz, and believes the market for fair trade is growing. "I hear someone express their appreciation for our commitment to fair trade, organic and shade grown coffees every week," he said.
Ledgard also believes there's a growing understanding among the public. He said, "I believe those that are aware of fair trade issues would pay a premium for a cup of karma." Still, he caps that premium at about 10 percent.
How to Spend your U.S Dollars in Support of Fair Trade
There are many ways to support fair trade, and perhaps the simplest is to put your money where your mouth is. "Most people here in the U.S. want to help because they're aware of the problems in developing countries," said Sullivan. "They know if they shop at a fair trading store like Ten Thousand Villages, the money goes back to the people and benefits them directly. The $10 you spend will not dent your income here in the United States. But for people living in developing countries, it's food for a day. Two days. Three days."
Fair Trade Crafts
Fair trade items include foods such as coffee, chocolate and tea, as well as a variety of crafts. Masks, wall hangings, and sculptures connect consumers with the cultural and artistic heritage of artisans from developing countries, as do utilitarian products such as hand-decorated tablecloths, baskets and dishes.
Consumers should be aware there is no certification process for crafts, and no label. "What is very good about Ten Thousand Villages," Sullivan said, "is that we were pioneers in the fair trade business. The name Ten Thousand Villages is synonymous to fair trade. People should feel confident when they are in a Ten Thousand Villages store because that in itself is a guarantee that everything has been purchased at a fair price, every cup represents a fair living wage."
Buying Idaho is Supporting Fair Trade
Global Exchange extols the virtues of buying fair trade products from developing countries and also promotes supporting local growers of organic produce in the United States. The group actively encourages consumers to frequent farmers' markets, co-ops, and community-supported agriculture groups.
"Supporting local organic food systems is one of the most radically effective ways a person can make change," O'Leary said. "It drastically reduces oil consumption, preserves green space in a world increasingly covered with asphalt, provides nutritional excellence and disease immunity, increases variability in our diets, adapts our eating to the changing seasons, fosters community, keeps money and resources richly flowing in our local economy and nourishes a deep place inside us that is being ignored by the corporate food system."
Fair Trade Matters
Supporting fair trade is a choice. "I hope people know it matters where they shop," Sullivan said. "In their own small way, they can participate in changing our world."