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Fair trade denotes decent wages and working conditions

Newhouse News Service

Coffee beans at Starbucks, bananas at the grocery store, beaded jewelry at a local gift shop. The “fair trade” logo seems to be popping up all over.

And while you might like the sound of it who doesn’t want to play fair? do you know what the term really represents?

In the most general sense, it’s a form of international trade designed to pay artisans, farmers and craftspeople primarily in the developing world a fair price for the goods they make. It also indicates adherence to social and environmental standards in the production of those wares no sweatshops, child labor or unsafe working conditions.

“It’s a system of exchange based on partnership and respect that seeks to use business as a tool to empower the poor and create development,” said Carmen K. Iezzi, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation, a Washington, D.C., association of fair trade wholesalers, retailers and producers.

The federation was founded in 1994. Today the group has 265 members in 14 countries, though most of them come from North America. And its rolls keep swelling.

“I started here a year ago,” Iezzi said, “and we’ve added 60 new members in that time. More and more entrepreneurs are recognizing that committing to fair trade is a viable opportunity for them.”

That’s because more and more consumers are questioning where and how the products they buy are made. And they’re using their shopping lists as a way to enact social change.

Consumers worldwide spent $2.2 billion on fair-trade certified products in 2006, according to Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, an umbrella group of fair-trade product certifiers around the world. That’s a 41 percent increase from 2005.

Coffee alone represents a hefty serving of those sales. The espresso poured at Dunkin’ Donuts, for example, carries the fair trade label, and Sam’s Clubs sell fair trade coffee from Brazil. To mark Fair Trade Month, Starbucks poured fair trade blends as its “Coffee of the Week” for three weeks during October.

But it’s not only the retail behemoths that are paying attention to the growing interest in conscientious consuming.

Nonprofit boutiques, such as the World Gallery and Cafe in Mandeville, La., and IN Exchange on the Tulane University campus in Uptown New Orleans, are selling a blend of fair trade products and locally and domestically made arts and crafts so shoppers can help improve the lives of people half a world away and right around the corner.

For example, the World Gallery sells Bombolulu jewelry made through a cooperative that provides employment to disabled adults in Kenya. It also sells natural soaps made by The Enterprising Kitchen, a program that provides job skills training to low-income women in the United States.

“Such items from the United States aren’t considered fair trade because we already have labor laws here,” said Karen Bordelon, who opened the gallery with her husband, Chad. “But we still wanted to include them. We wanted to do fair trade but take it a step further.” Money raised will go toward helping orphans in Russia and Haiti.

Erica Trani, president of IN Exchange, has a similar formula. She includes items made by international artisans alongside paintings and bracelets crafted by local artists.

“When we buy $500 worth of goods in a developing country, it makes a big impact on a rural community,” Trani said. “While I know the store isn’t going to have that same big economic impact on New Orleans, it really helps the local artists individually who are featured in the store.”

Trani said she’s had to educate some local customers on what fair trade is.

“Being a fair trader down South can be rather lonely,” she said. “Many people here are vaguely familiar with the term, and they’re familiar with the issues. But in California, it’s almost a way of life. I always try to talk to customers about fair trade, what it is, what it does, when they come into the store.”

Consumers who want to buy fair trade products should look for labels. Some commodities such as coffee, tea, fresh fruit and even flowers can earn official fair trade certification through TransFair USA, a national nonprofit that provides independent verification of fair trade claims. According to its Web site, the group “audits transactions between U.S. companies offering fair-trade certified products and the international suppliers from whom they source to ensure that the farmers and farm workers behind the goods were paid a fair, above-market price.”

“We like to think of the `fair trade certified’ (label) as the global farmers market; we bring the American consumer quality products from the developing world,” Anthony Marek, communications director for TransFair USA, said in an e-mail.

Though the Fair Trade Federation does not certify products, it does screen potential members to make sure their businesses, both nonprofit and for-profit, meet fair trade standards, Iezzi said. Such standards include paying “fair wages within a local context, supporting participatory workplaces, ensuring environmental sustainability, supplying financial and technical support, respecting cultural identity, offering public accountability and educating consumers.”

Many fair trade goods are made and sold through cooperatives in developing countries that offer workers job skills training, health care and educational opportunities.

That’s the case with the Threads of Yunnan, a program operating in rural Yunnan Province, China. The program works with women making traditional embroidered handicrafts, such as cards and bags. Family incomes in the area are often less than $50 per year, and most of the women in the area have never attended school.

“Through sales of their handicrafts, the project enables women to earn cash income which they can invest in their family’s future,” according to the Threads of Yunnan Web site, http://www.threadsofyunnan.com/. “Besides the financial benefit, as part of the project the women also receive training in literacy, nutrition and money management.”

“Our members see the changes in the communities where they have been working,” Iezzi said. “The heart of it all is to allow producers to change their own lives. They spend the money they earn on health care, education, clean water. … It may not seem like much to us, but it’s huge for a woman living in a slum outside Nairobi.”

Women make up the bulk of those benefiting from fair trade. “Sixty to 70 percent of the artisans providing fair-trade hand-crafted products are women. Often these women are mothers and the sole wage earners in the home,” according to the Fair Trade Federation.

Helping those poor women and families was a big draw for the Bordelons when they decided to open their World Gallery.

“Fair trade helps poor people earn a living so they don’t have to abandon their kids,” said Karen Bordelon, who has spent 10 years working to support orphanages in Russia after the couple adopted three children from that country.

Chad Bordelon said that traveling to Russia opened his eyes to the harsh reality faced by some in developing countries.

“People here,” he said, “don’t know how fortunate we are to be born in America.”

uple adopted three children from that country.

Chad Bordelon said that traveling to Russia opened his eyes to the harsh reality faced by some in developing countries.

“People here,” he said, “don’t know how fortunate we are to be born in America.”

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