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Northampton Works Toward ‘Fair Trade Town’ Status

The Smith College Sophian

Over the past several years, terms like “organic” and “fair trade” have come to append myriad definitions in consumer culture. Throughout Europe, and increasingly throughout the United States, a movement has spread to stipulate not only the requirements of fair trade products but also to distinguish areas dedicated to the furthering of fair trade practices in their businesses. After the recent success of Amherst being declared the third “Fair Trade Town” in the United States, Northampton hopes to soon become the fifth town nationally to join the push.

The Fair Trade Town movement began in 2000 in the small English town of Garstang, when the 4,000-person community decided to promote the FAIRTRADE mark by drafting up a series of requirements for a Fair Trade Town and fulfilling them. The movement comes out of an increased European availability of fresh fruits, coffee, chocolate, sugar and other products produced internationally and imported to various countries. It also claims roots in the worker solidarity acts of the 1980s regarding Latin American fair labor practices.

After eight years, there are over 300 towns in England qualified as Fair Trade Towns, as well as several others throughout Europe. “They didn’t know what they were doing or what they were starting, they just knew that they really supported free trade,” Alexandra Mello, founder and coordinator of Northampton’s Fair Trade Town committee, said.

Mello and others believe that this project answers a fundamental question that touches all community members who support fair trade in their towns: “How do we reach more people and make this a new thing?” According to Mello, “This isn’t charity. This isn’t an aid program. These are products that you’re buying anyways, and through fair trade models the farmers are receiving what’s considered a fair and living wage for their work.”

Criteria for a Fair Trade Town include the formation of a committee of people “who are willing and able to commit time to promote [free trade] throughout the community,” Mello said. In Northampton, this has manifested itself in educational opportunities such as films, speakers and even tabling outside store fronts in the warm weather, in hopes of ultimately “getting people to ask the questions they never knew to ask,” as Mello said.

The final step in a town becoming labeled a Fair Trade Town is the passage of a resolution that, though not binding, demonstrates that a town “understands the movement, that [members] support the movement and that when they can they will be using fair trade products.”

“Once you pass it, there’s a big challenge: what do you do next? You don’t want to drop the ball; we want to keep it going. We’re organizing at least one or maybe two delegations of people to go to co-ops around the world,” Mello said. Goals for the future include attracting more media coverage and potentially labeling the window fronts of businesses where fair trade products can be purchased.

“We have gotten a lot of support from people in the community, including the mayor’s office, who heard about what we were doing,” Mello said. She adds, “Teri Anderson, the economic coordinator for the town, comes to every meeting.”

“When [a local florist] offered and sold the first long-stemmed roses in the Pioneer Valley, people thanked her for being the first locally-owned flower shop in America to do that,” Dan Finn, the coordinator of the Pioneer Valley Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (PV BALLE), noted.

Finn, whose goal “is to help people throughout the Pioneer Valley understand what a local business is,” notes that a major challenge in the movement comes in the sheer number of people “who don’t understand what fair trade means.”

“You know, your local Wal-Mart isn’t really local. Ownership matters,” he said. “When people are tied to a community, they are going to care about the people of that community to a higher degree. It’s about encouraging all of us to think local first…encouraging businesses to be socially, globally and environmentally responsible.”

Mello cited the fact that she was largely on her own in the beginning of the movement last year as another challenge. However, this has been aided by partnerships with organizations like PV BALLE as well as with other Fair Trade Towns, like Brattleboro, Vt., and Amherst. Mello agreed with Finn, however, in denoting education as a major challenge to the movement.

“We do have a good amount of availability, but for the amount of cafés we have, we could do a lot better,” Mello said. “Very few cafés have free trade coffee readily available, and even fewer have fair trade tea. That’s a detriment because one of the main things that people do in this town is to go to a café for a cup of coffee or tea…there’s only a handful of them that serve fair trade tea.” Mello cited Book Link, Elbow Room Café, Haymarket, Green Bean, The Yellow Sofa and Cornucopia as businesses carrying fair trade coffee.

“Here we are, oppressing children on the Ivory Coast, keeping them out of school and in slavery-like conditions, so that our kids can have soccer outfits,” Mello noted. “It’s this insane disconnect…Fair trade is not a ‘variety.’ Fair trade is a movement, an ethic.”

Mello hopes to become more involved on the Smith campus in the future, noting that Seattle’s Best, a coffee company owned by Starbucks and served in the Campus Center, “is about as bad as you can get” as far as fair trade products are concerned. “A lot of people are very stressed these days, whether they are students or professionals. One thing I love about the fair trade movement is that you don’t have to join a committee, you don’t have to do anything different except use your purchasing power differently.”

“It’s great to have a good education, it’s great to have fun, but with something like fair trade it’s very simple to do a very great thing,” Finn said. “You can just go get a cup of coffee with friends, and if you choose fair trade products, organic products, local products, it really can have an impact. Have your concern for the world extend as far as possible.”

Mello and others are hopeful that the resolution will be passed in time for a May celebration that will hopefully shut down a Northampton street and provide samples of fair trade products as well as information to the community. “It’s going to take off,” she said. “Within a couple of years, there will be hundreds of these towns across the United States.”


  1. Victor Delgado

    I am interested in being educated in the fair trade movement so as to later participate in in this worth- while project.

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