What’s fair about fair trade?

This weekend I will be celebrating World Fair Trade Day on May 13 and Mother’s Day on May 14. The combination seems very appropriate, as it was my mother who introduced me to the world of fair trade over 40 years ago.

In fact, the woman who started the fair trade movement in North America was also a mother.

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler was an MCC volunteer and mother of two who, while accompanying her husband Joe Byler on a trip to Puerto Rico in 1946, visited a Mennonite Central Committee project that taught women living in poverty to sew.

Recognizing the need for a new market for their beautiful lace products, Edna Ruth agreed to purchase some of their work to sell back in the United States, using the money from those sales to buy more products. Eventually, her work grew into Ten Thousand Villages, which is now the oldest and largest fair trade retailer in North America.

In some ways, it feels like fair trade has always been a part of my life, as for many years my mother sold fairly traded products out of our home. This was a time when SELFHELP Crafts of the World, now known as Ten Thousand Villages, was just becoming established in Canada, and there were few stores and festival sales, so the organization depended in large part on volunteers who sold product out of their homes. People would invite neighours, friends, family, and acquaintances to their house to learn about fair trade and to buy a gift.

My mother explained to me that selling the jewellery, cards, baskets, wooden boxes, ornaments, candle holders, tablecloths, napkins and other items handcrafted by people from countries around the world—and stored in our guest room—would help children in those countries go to school.

As someone who loved school, I couldn’t imagine a life without that opportunity. When the boxes were opened for people to shop, the guest room was transformed into a magical place where beautiful items were passed around and interesting stories were shared.

Ten Thousand Villages logoThanks to the creativity, initiative, and hard work of Edna Ruth Byler, the option to buy fair trade handicrafts has been available to North Americans for over 70 years. And today there are far more fair trade products, including food and clothing, available than ever before across North America and Europe.

I sometimes wonder, though, how most of us understand the concept of fair trade. What makes it fair and why isn’t all trade fair?

Fair trade is a both movement and a business model. It is defined as trade in which fair prices are paid to producers in developing countries—fair prices that adequately reimburse producers for the cost of materials and time spent making or growing the product.

The ten principles of fair trade focus on dialogue and building long-term relationships. They talk about transparency, accountability, capacity building, respect for the rights of women and children, safe working conditions, and environmental sustainability. In comparison, other trade and business models seem to be mainly about the rights of corporations and are concerned more with profits than people.

Rabeya Akter, Shuktara Handmade Paper Project, Bangladesh

Rabeya Akter at Shuktara Handmade Paper Project in Feni, Bangladesh.

However, people are at the heart of fair trade, and most of the producers or makers that Ten Thousand Villages works with are women, many of them mothers.

For those mothers, employment with a fair trade organization means income for regular meals, sturdier homes, school fees for some or all of their children, and access to medicines if someone falls ill. Flexible hours also mean mothers can be home with their children rather than spending twelve or more hours a day working outside the home. Women are provided with training opportunities, encouraged to participate in savings programs, and be financially independent.

This weekend, as we celebrate our mothers and the ways they have shaped us, we can also help to shape a better world through our consumer choices. Indeed, economic practices that place people first are a powerful way to change the world.

by Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office. 

It’s just coffee and flowers…

This week’s blog is written by Thomas Coldwell, who is currently volunteering with MCC Ottawa, and interning as Associate Pastor with the Village International Mennonite Church. In fall, he will join MCC Alberta as Peace and Community Engagement Coordinator.

This past May, I co-led the MCC Alberta/Saskatchewan Uprooted 2015 delegmonumento-a-la-revolucionation to Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. We learned about migration.

Many in Mexico and Guatemala (and Canada, too) migrate for economic reasons. They are unable to sustain a decent standard of living due to poverty or a lack of job opportunities.

Some migrants, especially from the rural areas, are small-scale landless subsistence farmers (or campesinos) who are unable to earn a sustainable income from the crops they produce. A lot of these crops—like coffee and flowers—are major exports, destined for countries like Canada.

Other migrating peoples are forced from their homes due to violence or instability. Across the region, people are leaving the familiar in search of both safety and economic opportunity. We met MCC partners helping peoples on the move and supporting initiatives for alternatives to migration.

Since arriving back in Ottawa, I find myself more often reading the “Product of…” labels on the foods I buy. My favourite yellow mangoes sold by street vendors in Mexico City are also available at my local grocery store. Our world is very interconnected—especially when it comes to food and drink.

An employee of Cafe Justo demonstating how  coffee is roasted in Agua PrietaAh, coffee. The smell. The taste. I wouldn’t say I’m a committed coffee-drinker (coffee and tea are equally enjoyable), but I do like a cup o’ joe. And so do many others: over 14 billion cups of coffee are consumed in Canada ever year (according to Statistics Canada). That’s about 398 cups of coffee per person per year (more than a cup-a-day for everyone in Canada). Coffee’s a big deal! And in 2009, most of Canada’s raw coffee was imported from Colombia, Brazil, and Guatemala.

During the learning tour, we visited Cafe Justo (“Just Coffee”)—a coffee co-operative of over 100 families in Mexico. The coffee beans are grown and harvested in the Chiapas region and sent to roast in Agua Prieta on the Northern border. Small-scale farmers often get the shorter end of the stick when competing with agri-businesses in places like Mexico and Guatemala. Traditionally, the “middle-man” buys coffee from the farmers to sell to the manufacturers for a profit. This often leaves the farmers with insufficient funds for their basic needs. The Cafe Justo co-operative sells directly to the consumer (businesses, churches, and individuals) after deciding what their coffee is worth. This business model has allowed 100 families to reach a decent standard of living without having to migrate.

Supporting fair trade helps small-scale farmers live with dignity in their communities. It provides choice: to leave or not to leave.My patio garden in Ottawa

This summer, Jen (my wife) and I decided to grow a garden on our patio. It’s been a fun journey as we’ve witnessed seeds sprouting and transforming into vibrant, green plants. Watching our flowers bloom has also been a joy for us!

While in the Guatemalan highlands, the Uprooted team visited MCC partners in Tonina who grew organic vegetables and flowers with no chemicals. Their gardens were beautiful. They sell their flowers across the border in Mexico. Many of the flowers imported to Canada from Latin America are grown under harsh labour conditions with high chemical usage, putting both workers and the environment at risk. But working in the flower industry is the primary source of income for some.

The question I ask myself is: How then shall I live? I find myself more concerned about the type of chocolate I purchase (and I love to purchase it). Or the coffee I drink. Or the flowers I enjoy. Purchasing fair trade is one way to support my global neighbours. Being mindful of systems and processes that do not always promote the well-being and dignity of people is part of my journey. Considering fair trade first (both globally and locally) can lead to decisions that will positively influence the lives of others.

But is it really worth it to support fair trade cooperatives? After all, it’s just coffee and flowers. And yet coffee and flowers allow people to feed their families, support their children’s education, and remain in their regions without needing to migrate for economic purposes. These projects serve as alternatives to migration.

When justice is partnered with human-centered business, the outcome is “just coffee” or “just flowers”—which means more than I can fully comprehend.