Monthly Archives: October 2009

Promoting a fairer world through faith, right here and right now

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by Serena Sato

serrv_serena-sato

Photo courtesy of SERRV

My journey to a world defined by the ways of fair trade began with my first trip to an economically impoverished nation – the Dominican Republic. As a young teen on a “mission trip” to a sugar cane batay in the countryside, I was devastated to learn how the sugar cane workers lived. My connection to them was through sugar – the plentiful treats I enjoyed back home thanks to the cheap sugar on the shelves at our neighborhood Kroger, and their extreme poverty thanks to the same.

The people we worked and worshiped with were, in actuality, slaves to the economic system. They were Haitians who crossed the border in hopes of earning a living. Their meager earnings ensured that they could not leave their village, and their pay in ‘corporate dollars’ that were only usable at the company-owned store dug them deeper into poverty.

I also learned that the people I spent time with were full of life and love. They could express joy through song and dance that sent me spinning. The children that I played with tried to teach me some Spanish and brought me food from home that I struggled to swallow with a smile.  They laughed and joked while teaching me how to share and to more broadly understand the concept of loving my neighbor.

I have worked in the field of fair trade for more than a dozen years – both with People Tree in Japan and with SERRV (http://www.serrv.org). My faith as a member of the Community of Christ builds on my desire to promote a fairer world right here, right now. We believe in God’s ongoing guidance and in the call to develop right relationships through community and care for our neighbors – all of the children of God.

Last weekend I sat in our central worship temple (a place dedicated to the pursuit of peace) during the annual Peace Colloquy. I listened as a speaker from Darfur shared a painful update on the situation in Sudan. I attended workshops on sustainability as part of Christian Feminism, and learned more about the absurd discrepancy of wages by gender here in the US. While I sat in silence, I thought about ways that fair trade relationships build peace. I remembered countless stories of how the opportunity to be treated more fairly helped improve relationships within families and communities, kept families together, led to investments that benefit whole communities, and gave women the strength to speak up. I thought about my own connections with artisans, farmers and their advocates around the world. Connections with those farmers in the Dominican Republic, with artisans I’ve worked with in rural Bangladesh, with weavers I’ve met in Ecuador. Connections with many other faiths I am able to interact with through my work at SERRV. And I thought about how right it is in my world and my faith that I can chose the way of fair trade.

My Faith Journey to Fair Trade

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By Jackie DeCarlo

jdc-dancing-with-kuapa-by-lwr

Photo: I’m celebrating Fair Trade with members of the Kuapa Kokoo association.  Photo credit: Lutheran World Relief

Through this blog, I have been able to invite several friends and colleagues to reflect on their spiritual paths and how those intersect with Fair Trade.  In the coming weeks we’ll be hearing from folks like Serena Sato, who works at SERRV and participates in a small Christian community in Madison, WI, and David Funkhouser of TransFair USA who is also an ordained Episcopalian minister.  It seems right for me to add my own personal experience.  I’m sharing a slightly modified part of a talk I gave to a Unitarian community when I worked for FTRN a few years back.  It tells part of my story and shares my motivation as a Fair Trader.

….There is an official definition of Fair Trade that speaks of it as a partnership based on dialogue, transparency and respect. For me at the level of the soul, Fair Trade has the power to improve lives both spiritually and materially. “Buying Fair Trade is like giving a glass of clean water to a thirsty person,” a cocoa farmer told me once.  Her Fair Trade association– Kuapa Kokoo — had sold at that time enough cocoa at fair prices in Ghana to dig 96 water wells, open three schools, and provide her village’s first “places of convenience,” what you and I call “bathrooms.”  When we buy Fair Trade, we help make those kinds of developments possible.  And we get high quality, beautiful or tasty products in own hands, our own homes.

This is a great irony for me as a person:  Basically my job as a consumer educator is to convince people to shop.  First off, I hate shopping.  Second of all, I am a Quaker.  Not the folks on the oatmeal boxes, Quakers have a tradition of simplicity.  We are supposed to look for the God within everyone, not what shoes somebody has on her feet or what brand of coffee is in his cup.  We aren’t supposed to be concerned with things of this world.  Yet these kinds of distinctions for me have been such an important part of my spiritual journey.

In Quakerism we use “queries”, which is just an old fashioned word for “questions,” to investigate our motivations, to clarify our intentions, to promote reflection.  I like the queries related to “Personal Way of Life” from the Baltimore Yearly Meeting:

  • Do you live in accordance with your spiritual convictions?
  • Do you seek employment consistent with your beliefs and in service to society?
  • Are you watchful that your possessions do not rule you? “

The questions for me become: Am I promoting materialism? Am I suggesting that you need to buy more, just in a politically correct way? Am I contributing to the kind of over-consumption that led to the recent global economic recession?  Here’s how I answer those queries for myself.

About a decade ago I was traveling around Central America and Mexico.  I had gone through some tough times and was getting some space from the US trying to figure out what I believed in, what mattered.  I was “taking a year off.”  But in a complication I hadn’t expect, in these very materially poor countries I kept coming into contact with people who wanted to be part of popular American culture.  Everywhere I looked:  American magazines, fast food, Tommy Hilfiger, and television.

I have been in some remote places in the world, but wherever there is electricity, there is a television.  Consider the implication of this.  All over the world, way up high on mountain tops and down in flat rice fields, people are seeing not only our sometimes simple-minded sitcoms and reality-shows, but they are also watching our commercials.  They are learning our materialism, our over-consumption.   And, because billions of people live on less than $2 a day, many of them want our lifestyle.

This frightened me.  Because I became worried, not only that the planet can’t sustain our kind of consumption spreading, but because millions of people are buying into a system that disconnects them from their individuality, separates them from their mother earth, and seeks to direct their energy and their skills into purchasing power.  The cloud of despair was getting darker for me.

At just about the same time I encountered a Fair Trade coffee cooperative in the highlands of Chiapas Mexico.  I ended up spending four months volunteering for the cooperative.  This was in 2000, when coffee was about .80 cents a pound on the world market, below the cost of production and much below the then guaranteed Fair Trade price of $1.26. I learned about how the fair price for coffee worked to help people out of poverty.   Beyond price, I also learned about Fair Trade as self-sufficiency, dignity, and opportunity.

I also learned that picking coffee beans is some of the hardest work you’ll ever do.  I didn’t have a total conversion and end up living in Mexico.  I eventually left and was on a bus traveling for hours and hours headed back to my middle-class lifestyle.  Somewhere along the way I had an epiphany:  Fair Trade helps prevent impoverished bodies AND it can help prevent the impoverishment of souls.  That is why I dedicated my professional live to helping people of faith and others of goodwill create economic justice through conscious consumption and trading.

Fair Trade Month Countdown

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by Zarah Partriana

In Case You Missed It…

In case you missed it, it is Fair Trade Month. And in case you missed me, I apologize for the lack of posts but I have been a busy bee winning Fair Trade prizes (amongst other things).

This whole month, TransFairUSA has been counting down the Fair Trade days and all the ways you can get involved with spreading Fair Trade. In order to bring you up to speed, here’s the list so far:

Way 1: Spread the Word

Way 2: Get Your Fair Trade Coffee Fix

Day 2: 87 million pounds of Fair Trade Certified coffee

Day 3: Fair Trade Certified Wine

Way 3: Find Fair Trade Certified Wine

Day 4: Fair Trade Certified Fruit

Way 4: Make a Banana Split Even Better

Day 5: Fair Trade Month Events

Way 5: Get the Party Started

Day 6: Delicious Cocoa

Way 6: Enjoy Fair Trade Chocolate

Day 7: The Impact

Way 7: Show your support

Day 8: Chirp Chirp

Way 8: Tweet Tweet

Day 9: Fair Trade AND Organic?!

Way 9: Help Farmers Transition to Organic

Day 10: Fair Trade Certified at a store near you

Way 10: Ask for it!

Day 11: Fair Trade Towns USA

Way 11: Make Your Town a Fair Trade Town

Way 12: Ask Questions

Day 12: Starbucks and the Small-Scale Farmer Loan Program

Day 13: Fair Trade Month Events

Way 13: Register your Fair Trade Month event

Day 14: 11 Years of Fair Trade Certification in the United States

Way 14: Host a Fair Trade Coffee cupping event

Day 15: Educating and Empowering Fair Trade Producers

Way 15: Take a (Educational) Coffee Break

Day 16: Fair Trade Certified Flowers

Way 16: Give someone special Fair Trade flowers

Day 17: Baking the Fair Trade Way

Way 17: Bake Cupcakes

Day 18: Fair Trade, the Market and You

Way 18: Spread the Word

Day 19: Fair Trade and Peru

Way 19: Learn more about Fair Trade Certified coops

Day 20: Nearly 900 Fair Trade Producer Organizations

Way 20: Find the Origin

Day 21: Travelling the Fair Trade Way

Way 21: Give a town a purpose

Twenty one days of Fair Trade and counting. Stay tuned to the Fair Trade Month website as they continue to highlight Fair Trade days and Fair Trade ways we can all get involved.

What Faithful Fair Trader Do You Admire?

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by Jackie DeCarlo

In a few days I will be at a Washington, DC institution: Busboys and Poets in the historic U Street neighborhood.  I will be representing the Fair Trade White House campaign (http://fairtradewhitehouse.com) at an evening hosted by Global Exchange to celebrate Fair Trade month.  It is no surprise the event will be at Busboys.   In just a few years the combination bookstore, restaurant, and meeting space has come to be a center of DC peace and justice activism.  It is also no coincidence to me that its owner, Andy Shallal, is a man of faith who through his business, art, and volunteer service works to promote interfaith understanding. (http://www.svn.org/index.cfm?pageId=1036)

But in some ways Mr. Shallal is not unique.  Throughout the Fair Trade and other justice movements, people of faith make lasting and sometimes unrecognized contributions.  I know that in my own faith community, Friends (Quaker) Meeting of Washington, one behind-the-scenes volunteer has, for at least 8 years, made sure that Fair Trade coffee is available for sale and refreshment after weekly worship services.  I recently learned of a Catholic woman who makes sure that homemade and fresh snacks are always available to the volunteers of a local Fair Trade coalition that meets at regularly.  Her hatchback is never lacking a cooler filled with beverages and munchies. Of course, there is no forgetting Edna Ruth Byler, a Mennonite missionary who, I contend in my book, started the Fair Trade movement out of the trunk of her car.

In honor of Fair Trade month, I wonder readers know of faithful Fair Traders that need a little spotlight.  A boost of recognition or a pat on the back.  Please use this space to name some names, and let the Fair Trade world know how that person infuses spirit into the Fair Trade movement.

How Deep is Consumer Demand for Fair Trade?

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coffee_displayby Burton Bollag

The most recent data show that the sale of Fair Trade Certified products continued growing strongly last year—an expansion that has been slowed but by no means halted by the current economic recession. This both heartens Fair Trade advocates and suggests future growth in the amounts and range of products that consumers are willing to pay more for in the name of social justice.

While the limits to that expansion are hard to predict, several indices–sales data, an international survey of consumer opinions, and the recent large-scale involvement of major corporate retailers—suggest the phenomenon has considerably further to go before exhausting its potential for growth.

In 2008, $1.1 billion of Fair Trade products were sold in the United States. That compares to considerably less than $100 million in 1996, the year TransFair USA was founded as the only independent certifier of Fair Trade products sold in the country.

Despite the onset of the deepest economic recession in two generations, US sales in 2008 grew by 10 percent over the previous year. This should “put to rest any thought that Fair Trade Certified is a boom-time luxury,” said Paul Rice, TransFair’s chief executive, in a written statement. Sales are expected to expand further this year.

Globally, the sale of Fair Trade products grew 22 percent in 2008 to $4.3 billion.

In April the results of the first international survey of consumers’ attitudes on the subject were released. The survey, commissioned by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), the organization that coordinates labelling at an international level from its headquarters in Bonn, Germany, questioned 1,000 randomly selected consumers in each of 15 rich countries.

Opinions in the US and the other countries were remarkably similar. Over half of those questioned said they have rewarded companies for being social responsible. 57 percent of Americans (and 60 percent of all respondents from all 15 countries) said they were willing to pay at least five percent more for Fair Trade Certified products.

Yet the reduced growth of Fair Trade sales in the United States in 2008—the 10 percent hike was smaller than in previous years—shows the movement is vulnerable to larger economic trends. Shopping in the produce section of a Safeway supermarket in Washington DC one recent afternoon, Carolyn Stouamire, a 52-year old financial assistant, reflected the ambivalence that many people may feel. She said she knew about Fair Trade, and could accept slightly higher prices for bananas or other products if the premium goes to community development projects for small farmers growing the food.

But she added, “with the economy going the way it is, it’s hard to pay more.”

Still, merchants have felt a strong enough demand among their customers that more and more major retailers are adopting or expanding Fair Trade lines. “The entire spectrum of retail stores … are charging ahead to try to offer Fair Trade products,” says Michael E. Conroy, an economist and senior Fair Trade organizer.

“Both Whole Foods and Walmart are pressuring TransFair USA to expand the range of products with Fair Trade certification,” says Conroy. He adds that FLO recently responded by relaxing its rules to allow TransFair USA to set temporary standards for new products.

Companies often like to paint their adoption of Fair Trade products as a sign of corporate social responsibility. But Susan Koehler, Senior Manager of corporate communications at Sam’s Club, the membership-only retail warehouse club of Walmart, adds that carrying Fair Trade products before competitors do can bring a marketing advantage. The move is “an opportunity for us to be different in the market place.”

Sam’s Club began carrying Fair Trade coffee in 2006, two years before Walmart did. Sam’s Club officials explain their earlier adoption of the item by the fact that the better-educated, more affluent customers they cater to tend to be more interested in Fair Trade.

Since starting with coffee, Sam’s Club has expanded it selection of Fair Trade products to about a dozen items including bananas and wine—a wider selection than is yet available at Walmart. Sam’s Club officials say they expect to expand both the volume and selection further, but add they have no way of knowing how far that expansion will go.

Shawn Baldwin, Sam’s Club vice president of fresh merchandising, says that some of his colleagues predict customer demand for the Fair Trade line may go the way of demand for organically-produced foods. Five years ago, he says, demand for organic items was growing strongly. But “now it is slowing down.”

Many Fair Trade products are also certified Organic, and could therefore satisfy demand for both lines. Still, says Baldwin, demand can be fickle. “I guess the tide could go up and down, depending of what customers ask for.”

Faith in Founding Fair Trade Los Angeles

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by Jackie DeCarlo

dan-miller-ftlaPhoto:  FTLA recently held a community discussion at St. Cross Episcopal in Hermosa Beach, CA on how to start a Fair Trade business.  Courtesy of Daniel Wilson, FTLA.

“Three Catholics, a Jew, and an Atheist walk into a bar…” no, it is not the start of a joke, but a slightly embellished description of how the grassroots group Fair Trade Los Angeles (http://fairtradela.org/) got started, according to its coordinator, Joan Harper.  In addition to her professional role at the Office of Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (http://www.archdiocese.la/ministry/justice/peace/index.php),

Joan is a volunteer with the Fair Trade LA group (FTLA), helping it build awareness of and participation in the Fair Trade movement in a vast urban area.  Joan was one of those Catholics who in 2005 formed FTLA to work with diverse groups to educate Angelinos about fair trade and to increase purchase of fair trade products and awareness of global poverty and trade issues.

Joan and her family recently hosted me for a week as I made a series of talks and presentations on behalf of Catholic Relief Services (http://crsfairtrade.org) to mark Fair Trade month.   Thanks to Joan’s efforts, I met Fair Traders of many faiths-Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians pop to mind-who affirmed for me how incredibly important people of faith are to building and sustaining a grassroots movement for Fair Trade in the United States.

As Fair Trade is grows and flourishes in mostly secular arenas, people of faith are a grounding force. There are Fair Trade businesses and Fair Trade Towns.  Fair Trade is a topic of academic debate and media attention.  Throughout concerns and controversies, marketing tactics and branding wars, a stabilizing force in the movement is the presence of people of faith focused on respect for God’s creation, first and foremost.

I love to tell the story of Fair Trade being started by a Mennonite missionary.  I rejoiced recently when Islamic Relief USA launched a Fair Trade project with Equal Exchange.  http://www.equalexchange.coop/islamicrelief)  I am heartened that the volunteers from FTLA join together as a people of many faiths, and none at all, to build community commitments to economic justice.   All these efforts at the grassroots foster my hope that even in the secular marketplace, Fair Trade will be shaped by the ethos and the activities of people who seek to serve a purpose greater than themselves.

How to Set Minimum Prices for Fair Trade Certified?

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ftrnjpegs.jpgby Jeff Goldman

There has been active debate for years about how to set minimum prices for Fair Trade Certified products, such as coffee, the dominant FT commodity.  A recent article in Time magazine’s October 5 issue, titled “What Price for Good Coffee? Fair Trade practices were created to help small farmers. But they may have hit their limits”, is the latest example of high profile concern.

The current worldwide Fair Trade Certified price of nonorganic coffee, as set by the Fairtrade Labelling Organization (FLO), is $1.35/lb., or 9 cents higher than the minimum price for the past few years. The current price is about 10% higher than the global market price.

Farmer advocates have urged FLO to raise prices to cover costs of production, or to a level that enables farmers to escape subsistence.  The latter price would be around $2, according to researcher Christopher Bacon.

FLO and TransFair USA counter that a higher price would serve much fewer farmers, perhaps tens of thousands instead of millions as demand decreased. The labeling initiatives prefer to increase market share for more farmers rather than the returns for each farmer.  Consumers, especially in an economic downturn, would be hesitant to pay even more for Fair Trade Certified products.

So, what minimum price strategies seem best to you for the short- and long-term for advancing Fair Trade Certified’s benefits to vulnerable farmers?

Community Building Equal Exchange and People of Faith

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by Peter Buck

This week’s guest blogger is Peter Buck of Equal Exchange.  EE is a worker-owned co-operative of fully committed fair traders, founded in 1986. They purchase, process and sell coffee, tea, chocolate, nuts, berries and bananas from forty small farmer co-operatives in twenty countries. Read on to learn how one of the pillars of success is Equal’s unique relationship to communities of faith.

Adrienne Fitch-Frankel pointed out in a post to this blog that, ” . . . communities of faith are among our society’s most important champions of social justice”.  This is certainly true in Equal Exchange’s experience with investors, partners and customers:

  • In the late 1980s, several congregations of Catholic women, including Dominican Sisters and Sisters of St Joseph, were among our early, critical investors.
  • In 1997, we recognized the importance of our faith relationships when we started a “Coffee Project” partnership with Lutheran World Relief, to jointly market coffee and other Fair Trade products to Lutheran congregations.
  • In thirteen years, the Interfaith Program has expanded to twelve such partnerships, including with Catholic Relief Services, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Islamic Relief and other national, faith-based relief and development organizations.
  • Our relationships also include many allies like Heartbeats and the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America in Cleveland and the Jubilee Justice Task Force of the United Church of Christ.

With the help of partners, allies and hundreds of local activists, the Interfaith Program sells over one million pounds of products from small farmer co-operatives to ten thousand communities of faith. This represents about a quarter of Equal Exchange’s sales.

As a Catholic, and a Worker/Owner and Interfaith Program Representative, I am constantly grateful for the opportunity to put my faith into action. I also find that action strengthens my faith.

I spend a lot of my time-visiting churches and schools and attending conferences-with people who are faithful, engaged and inspiring, and who are willing to put a lot of effort and creativity into “moving coffee (or chocolate, or tea) for the farmers”. Our Interfaith Partners put in long hours organizing marketing and education to promote Equal Exchange; parishioners bring coffee to their churches for fellowship after services, and organize regular sales; activists promote Fair Trade in the regional conferences of their denominations; clergy spread the word to other clergy; campus ministers and their inspired students bring us to their campuses.

Over the last ten years, Equal Exchange has led about 300 people of faith on delegations to visit farmer co-ops. I have led four delegations, to El Salvador and Mexico. Delegations can involve some physical discomfort, and emotional challenge in confronting the realities of poverty, injustice and struggle. It is inspiring to see a delegate facing these challenges-maybe for the first time-struggling to make sense of their experience and think about how to bring it back home. It is even more inspiring to participate when the delegates help each other process our experiences, in the light of our faith.

This community of farmers, activists, investors, Interfaith partners, customers and Equal Exchange worker/owners is the Interfaith Program.