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. 

Looking back to move forward

This week MCC Canada is celebrating its 50th birthday.  The wider MCC system is nearly 100 years old, but MCC Canada itself is marking a half century this year.

I spent the past two years writing a history of MCC in Canada in anticipation of this 50th anniversary. I poked around in archives, reading letters, minutes and reports, I scanned numerous periodicals, and I interviewed dozens of people. I was trying to unearth the story – no, the many stories – that constitute MCC Canada’s history.  It was an enormous challenge and also a great privilege.

MCC began in 1920 when Mennonites in North America provided food aid to starving people in the Soviet Union.

MCC began in 1920 when Mennonites in North America provided food aid to starving people in the Soviet Union.

History is not very “cool” these days.  And yet, I believe that knowing something about our history – as individuals and families, churches and institutions – is very important.  Here are four reasons why I believe people associated with MCC Canada need to know its history:

  • So that we know our roots and understand how they have shaped an identity.  We as individuals are all a product of our history. We have been formed by the people, the places, and the contexts into which we were born. I am who I am, in large measure, because of circumstances, influences, and choices which preceded me. The same is true for an institution like MCC.  We know MCC as we know its history.
  • So that we remember those who have gone before us.  MCC Canada would not be what it is today, if thousands of people had not given sacrificially of their money, time, wisdom and imagination to make the organization what it is today — if they had not transformed a committee into a movement.  We do well to remember the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds the work of MCC in Canada.
  • So that we can say thank-you to those who have given us brilliant ideas and pioneered innovative responses to need.  Those who articulated a vision for restorative justice and provided practical ways of expressing it. Those who dreamed up the Canadian Foodgrains Bank as a way of offering an emergency response to hunger. The men who negotiated a refugee sponsorship agreement.  The women who gave us thrift shops and Ten Thousand Villages (formerly, Selfhelp Crafts). The Ontarians who created the iconic peace button: “to remember is to work for peace.”  Thank-you!
  • MCC service worker Janet Kroeker and friend at Port Hardy, BC.

    MCC service worker Janet Kroeker and friend at Port Hardy, BC., 1970s.

    So that we are kept humble and learn from our mistakes. When we face the past with honesty, we hopefully recognize the situations where we have failed, where we have lacked courage, and where our work has been tainted with attitudes and practices that do not reflect the reign of God.  If we do not know the past, we cannot learn from it.

Knowing our history does not mean living in the past. Nor does it mean that we resist  change – far from it.  It does mean that as we face the future, we can move forward with intentionality.  We can let go of certain things, because they are not essential to who we are.  We can embrace other things because they are core to our identity.  We can adapt in ways that have integrity. As we learn our history, we can make deliberate choices about the future, rather than drift according to whatever wind is blowing.

Mi’kmaq theologian Terry LeBlanc tells the story about a young boy walking into a deep unknown forest with his grandfather. The young boy was terrified of becoming lost.  As they walked forward, the grandfather looked back regularly.  When the anxious boy asked what he was doing, the grandfather replied, “We look back so that we know from where we have come. We look back so that we do not get lost.”

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office. Her history of MCC in Canada, written under the auspices of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, will be published by CMU Press in November.