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Does Fair Trade Owe Faith Communities for Past & Current Inspiration?

man-working-stool-w-cross-crsBy Jacqueline DeCarlo

As lead blogger for the next few months, I want to offer a warm welcome to this “Spirituality and Fair Trade” blog.  Many thanks to FTRN for devoting space to the question of how faith-based and spiritual motivations are shaping today’s effort to help believers shop their values. With your participation, and a range of voices from the Fair Trade movement, I hope we’ll create a conversation about the role faith plays in this unique marketplace.

But before we explore what’s happening today, I launch this blog with a premise:  The Fair Trade movement has its roots in–and owes much of its formative inspiration to–people of faith.  One of my favorite stories is that of Edna Ruth Byler, a church volunteer in Pennsylvania, who worked with the Mennonite Central Committee (http://mcc.org). As part of their regular duties, Edna Ruth and her husband J.N. took a trip in 1946 to Puerto Rico, where Byler was introduced to impoverished seamstresses improving their skills in sewing classes. When she got home, Edna Ruth began to sell embroidery products to women in local sewing circles.  She returned profits to the Puerto Rican seamstresses to help them work their way out of poverty. Eventually Byler opened a gift shop in the basement of the home she and J.N. shared, and that led the way to the retail chain now known throughout the United States and Canada as Ten Thousand Villages.

As important as it was to help create a successful Fair Trade Organization, Edna Ruth made an even greater contribution by shaping the framework of what Fair Trade is and why.  Finding opportunities to connect disadvantaged and marginalized producers to consumers has become a central principle of Fair Trade.  Other resources on this website can introduce you to the rest of the principles.  My point is that one woman, spurred by her faith and supported by her denomination, helped start a successful movement for economic justice.  We people of faith, then, have an important legacy to uphold.  We can’t take all the credit for Fair Trade’s success, of course.  That wouldn’t be accurate nor would it be appropriate as many faith traditions caution humility!  But as the movement evolves, I think it is important to shine a light on the religious and spiritual motivations some Fair Traders draw from as they work to shape and improve the movement.

In the coming months I will invite several Fair Traders to share this space to relate how their faith shapes their work.  At this point, I’d be interested to learn of particular role models within your faith community. Feel free to comment and uplift an individual or community whose faith results in Fair Trade activism.  Or, chime in if you think my premise is bunk!  Let me know if you think that Fair Trade, being based in the marketplace, should be considered only as a secular endeavor.  Whatever your opinions, I’ll post once a week, but regularly respond to comments you offer.

Photo: A priest in Madagascar explains the features of hand-made furniture.  Photo credit: Jacqueline DeCarlo/CRS.


  1. An interesting topic to explore. Since FT is largely values-based, the link to faith-based communities and action which grows from spiritual understanding is evident in the history of FT as a movement. I’m interested in discussion of how and where that continues.

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