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. 

Solidarity, resistance, recovery: Thoughts on a Mother’s Day walk

I chose to spend a portion of Mother’s Day this year participating in the Sisters in Spirit walk that honours and remembers missing and murdered Indigenous women.

It was a holy thing to walk slowly and reverently with several hundred women, men, elders, children and youth through Winnipeg’s downtown; to absorb the drumming, dancing and singing; to hear the speeches and the prayers at the gathering place. This witness of remembrance for lives lost or vanished, this call for an end to violence – it was sacred space.

As I walked, the reasons for my being there became clear.

IMG_20150510_140851Solidarity – I wanted to stand with the Indigenous people in my community, people who have experienced the violent death or disappearance of a beloved mother, daughter, granddaughter, sister, auntie or friend. As a mother who has lost a child – my middle son died of cancer as an eight-year-old – I have a small window into the excruciating agony that families experience when a precious loved one is snatched away.

The reality of violence against Indigenous women in Canada is a travesty. Nearly 1200 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing since 1952.[i]  This represents a rate nearly four times greater than the representation of Indigenous women in the Canadian population. One study indicates that the national homicide rate for Indigenous women is seven times higher than for non-Indigenous.  Not only do Indigenous women experience a disproportionate amount of violence, the violence is also much more extreme.

Like many others, I want to stand with those who suffer from the violence and call for it to end. We must all work together to address the poverty, racism, marginalization and violence that makes so many Indigenous women statistics. Showing up with the Sisters in Spirit is one way to do that.

IMG_20150510_125510Resistance – I wanted to participate in this Mother’s Day community action because, to me, it is a powerful way of resisting all that is crass and commercial about Mother’s Day. One of the realities of our advanced capitalist system is that it commodifies everything it can – joy and happiness, peace and security, water and clean air.[ii] We see the most egregious examples of this at Christmas time, but it increasingly happens on Mother’s Day too.

At Mother’s Day we are programmed to again head to the mall to buy stuff – jewelry, clothing, electronics, appliances, spa visits, vacations and more – to show our mothers we love them. According to one source, Canadians were projected to spend $107 each on Mother’s Day, with an overall Canadian total close to $500 million. Many of us have bought into the lie that love is about buying and giving stuff, rather than expressing gratitude, compassion and caring.

Capitalism also teaches us that we are individuals – and only individuals. Our purpose in life is to seek our own personal gratification. Sure, if I buy a TV I will help to employ the people who built or sold the TV, but there is little in the capitalist agenda that promotes community. There is little inherent in capitalism that shapes us to work for the common good – to build just and caring communities.[iii]

The women who organize the Sisters in Spirit walk know that life is precisely about caring, compassion and community. Their actions are a wonderful act of resistance to the Mother’s Day of capitalist enterprise.

IMG_20150510_134325Recovery – Ever since I learned of the roots of Mother’s Day, I have longed for a recovery of its spirit and vision. According to at least one (if debated) tradition, the day has its origins in the work and proclamation of Julie Ward Howe, an American suffragist, writer and lecturer who lived from 1819 to 1910.

Moved by what she witnessed of both the U.S. Civil War and the Franco-Prussian wars, Howe issued her Appeal to womanhood throughout the world (later known as the Mother’s Day Proclamation) in 1870. The proclamation was a clarion call to women to condemn war, and to stop preparing their sons to kill the sons of other mothers.  She understood that women – mothers, in particular – possess a special responsibility to build a world of peace.

The women of Sisters in Spirit hold a vision for Mother’s Day very much like Julia Ward Howe. They call people to mourn the murdered and missing, to acknowledge that all human lives are precious and deserve protection, and to work together to end violence against Indigenous women – indeed, against all life. Sisters in Spirit embrace a vision of justice, peace and healing. They embody the true spirit of Mother’s Day.

[i] This statistic, from the RCMP’s National Operational Review on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, has been challenged by various people, including Dr. Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and professor at Ryerson University, who indicates that the number is likely much higher.

[ii] See Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 105-109.

[iii] See Bell, 94-97.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.