— From the pages of FLL#11 • Written by Michael Schalow
For years now, outcries have been voiced against a society and a trading system that pays more attention to the rights of its consumers than of its producers. Few consumers have time to consider the moral consequences of their product choices when price, quality, and customer satisfaction are foremost in their minds. This apathy toward the plight of the producers has produced a distressing anomie in the processes by which products are made, distributed, and sold.
The good news is that not all of the world has abandoned its concern for proper compensation and producer rights. Movements to make trading a fair process can be dated back to at least the early 1800s; and ever since, the notion has steadily expanded and gained popularity. One of the earliest instances of Fair Trade as it exists currently was in 1946, where the Mennonite Central Committee dedicated itself to selling foreign handcrafts at designated locations in order to directly pay the creators. The committee’s intentions were good, but the items sold had little function other than to decorate homes and to signal the moral integrity of their owners.
A big advance in Fair Trade’s scope and success came following the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement, which paved the way for a new method of trading and selling coffee. Soon, many more Fair Trade food and drink items, such as tea, rice, spices, and chocolate, rose to prominence. This shift from hand-made items to agricultural products has broadened the appeal of the movement and has increased revenue drastically. Hand-crafted items are still sold, but they appeal largely to a niche market, while the agricultural goods provide an accessible and more marketable alternative.
Another significant step in Fair Trade’s exponential progress was the creation of the FTO Mark, a symbol placed on any Fair Trade item that assures potential buyers that the item was produced through Fair Trade. Before, consumers could only buy Fair Trade items at a world shop. Now anybody with a basic interest in global equality and fairness can support the movement simply by choosing a Fair Trade item over a free trade item.
Through Fair Trade, workers are guaranteed somewhere between 60-62% of the profits made from the purchase of their products, compared to the typical 10-12% in a non- Fair Trade sales environment. This noticeable difference leads to many positive changes in the families and communities of the workers. Families previously too poor to send their children to school no longer require their children to stay at home and work alongside them. Meals are more frequent and less draining to the family’s income. Fair Trade often proves to be reason enough to become a farmer, whereas farming was traditionally seen by young adults as a position of low income and nearly fruitless hard work.
Fair Trade also provides two things that can be neither bought nor sold: self-respect and hope. With Fair Trade’s assistance, the impoverished stand a higher chance of breaking the cycle. Their children can receive education and pursue aspirations once unavailable to them. The workers themselves receive the emotional benefit of providing for their families and becoming self-sufficient.
Also of note is Fair Trade’s commitment to preventing child labor. Buying Fair Trade items lends support to a system that does not enslave and underpay children. Fair Trade items may be worthwhile, cost-efficient, and, in the case of the edible ones, delicious, but those purchases contribute to something larger and far more meaningful than instant gratification. Fair Trade avoids and discourages many of the practices and problems associated with free trade, and so, by buying Fair Trade items, consumers are not only buying products guaranteed to be worth their money, but they are also upholding an unspoken promise to the rest of the world, silently but actively supporting a worthier and more humane way of doing business.
The beauty of Fair Trade is its ubiquity. Many stores in Lancaster, while not exclusively Fair Trade stores, have devoted a spot to the promotion of Fair Trade. The Christian-themed stuffed animal store (owned by Sight & Sound Theatres), Noah’s Landing (which used to be) in Rockvale Outlets, sport(ed) a shelf amidst the beaded eyes and furry smiles of its other items where hand-made animals and musical instruments are available for purchase. The jewelry store, Silver Moon at Park City Shopping Center, has a product line called Far Fetched, composed of eye-catching and intricate Fair Trade jewelry. The Body Shop (also located at Park City) contains countless body care products containing ingredients like Guatemalan aloe vera and Namibian marula oil (take note here that the label may be Community Trade, but the fundamentals are basically identical to Fair Trade).
Even in Lancaster, there are areas that have become focused on Fair Trade. Square One Coffee is one such example. Josh and Jess Steffy stepped up in 2007 to take over ownership of Square One, and with their new leadership came a new focus on Fair Trade. All fourteen brands of their coffee are certified Fair Trade Organic, as are the Theo chocolate bars that can be bought at Square One. “We have a lot of options when it comes to choosing where we buy our unroasted coffee, but we’ve chosen to exclusively purchase and roast only certified Fair Trade Organic coffees,” say the Steffys of their bold choice. The pair has also taken the unusual approach of roasting their own coffee, making them one of the few coffee shops to roast on-site. This process is typically done before the coffee is shipped, but the Steffys have never been concerned with cutting corners. Having spent much time working with charities in the third world, Josh and Jess have seen firsthand the importance of adequately repaying the people who make Square One Coffee possible. Cost comes second to brewing the best coffee and rewarding the producers for their hard work.
Another notable store that wholeheartedly supports Fair Trade is Ten Thousand Villages. Although Ten Thousand Villages currently has over 160 stores across Canada and the USA, Lancaster houses the first and largest of them all. The seed that would later burgeon into Ten Thousand Villages was first planted when Edna Byler, a member of the aforementioned Mennonite Central Committee, traveled to Puerto Rico. She brought back needlework from the project that had begun there to show her friends and acquaintances, and soon her souvenirs became popular enough to warrant the beginnings of a business. Mrs. Byler opened a gift shop in her basement to promote the items, but the basement quickly became too small for her small business. In 1987, the old Miller Hess Shoe Company building of Akron was acquisitioned to continue the work of Mrs. Byler; and since then, it has experienced nothing but success. Music, rugs, furniture, and many other useful products can now be purchased at the store.
As Dave (the friendly retired school teacher now working at Ten Thousand Villages) would be happy to explain, Ten Thousand Villages operates out of a simple desire to improve the world in any way possible. Barriers of culture and language cannot hide the fact that all people have the same basic principles and desires. One way Ten Thousand Villages counteracts the exploitation and inequality of usual business transactions is by paying its rug artisans half of the price up front, with the rest of the purchase price coming in increments as the items are made. This method is used for the sale of rugs due to the long amount of time needed to create a rug (a year or more is not an atypical production time). Each of the many items in Ten Thousand Villages has a process tailored to suit the production needs. The items are then sold by Ten Thousand Villages independently of their makers, who have already been properly paid by the time their crafts arrive. The price is set from the beginning, so as to prevent negotiating and nitpicking over the finished product.
In many less honorable business deals, minute flaws and unnecessary complaints are used as reasons to cut costs and lower the amount of money owed to the artisans. Ten Thousand Villages operates by a system where flaws are corrected without reductions to price, and artisans are helped if the flaws continue. Imposters, largely businesses that promise good partnership and compensation while constantly looking for ways to trap unsuspecting artisans in their business for brutally low wages, are unfortunately common in third world countries. Ten Thousand Villages offers a reliable and transparent solution to workers seeking gainful employment, eliminating the possibility of that tragic ensnarement by which all too many workers are robbed of money that is rightfully theirs. Like Square One Coffee, Ten Thousand Villages is less concerned with saving money and maximizing profit than it is with dealing fairly with the people who most need and deserve that courtesy.
Many wonder what it is that they can do to change the world. Certainly, they would be surprised and delighted to hear that one answer is to buy a different brand of coffee or chocolate than they usually do. As once said by Nelson Henderson, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” For the average consumer, Fair Trade offers the option of making a statement and a difference. Heroic feats and enormous donations are not needed. All that is required, really, is a new choice of rug, a different bar of chocolate, or an unfamiliar teabag.