It’s about shopping with a conscience.
In the past decade, a growing number of consumers who care about the environment and the working conditions of farmers and other producers throughout the world have started looking for one simple label each time they shop: Fair Trade Certified.
Fair Trade is a movement that seeks to alleviate poverty by ensuring that farmers, artisans and others receive a fair price for their goods.
It aims to empower producers – particularly those in the developing world – to invest in their communities and improve conditions for marginalized workers and their families. Fair Trade also promotes environmental stewardship and contributes to sustainable development.
In Canada and the United States, Fair Trade sales doubled between 2002 and 2006, according to reports from the Fair Trade Federation.
In the Inland Northwest, people are becoming more aware of the significance of Fair Trade thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ric Conner and Denise Attwood.
Twenty-five years ago, the Spokane couple journeyed to southeast Asia and befriended a Tibetan refugee family selling sweaters in Kathmandu. In their desire to help the family find a market for their traditional crafts, Conner and Attwood ended up starting a business based on relationships – with the goal of caring for people in addition to making a profit.
Long before Fair Trade had an official name, Conner’s and Attwood’s Ganesh Himal Trading Co. was already putting its principles to practice.
Beginning Friday and throughout next weekend, Ganesh Himal will be among several local Fair Trade vendors at the 25th anniversary Fair Trade Festival.
The event, which takes place at the Community Building in downtown Spokane, will feature sweatshop-free jewelry, pottery and other handicrafts created by artisans from throughout the world.
When they first started selling sweaters made in Nepal, Attwood and Conner worked exclusively with one family. After a few years, they established relationships with eight others.
Now they receive shipments every two months with sweaters, handcrafted clothing, jewelry, textiles and paper from 14 cooperatives made up of Tibetan refugee families. The couple and their 12-year-old son, Cameron, also travel to Nepal every other year and communicate with their partners every day via e-mail.
One of the closest relationships they have established is with a young woman named Kesang, who wasn’t even born when her mother started working with Ganesh Himal.
When Conner and Attwood met Kesang’s family, they lived in a one-room shack with no running water and very few amenities. Kesang’s mother learned how to knit and her father became an expert shipper of goods.
The money they earned by sending their products overseas improved their standard of living and enabled them to send Kesang and her two sisters to school in northern India. Kesang also was able to receive a scholarship from the College of St Benedict/St. John’s University in Minnesota.
Now 22 and equipped with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance, Kesang has returned to Nepal to help her mother teach widows and abused women how to knit so that they, too, can become self-sufficient. Her goal, she told Attwood, is to become a social entrepreneur.
“It’s been amazing to watch these young people become empowered by the work their parents have done,” says Attwood. “We have formed partnerships that are cooperative and fair and they, in turn, have reached out to others in their culture.”
Other local Fair Trade vendors have similar stories to share.
In Guatemala’s highlands, for instance, indigenous women who used to sell their wares for almost nothing at the local markets are able to make a profit and attain economic self-sufficiency thanks to their partnership with the Cuc-Gonzales family of Spokane.
These mothers and widows get paid in advance and earn more money for the jewelry and other handiwork they make for Moonflower Enterprises, which strives to promote traditional Mayan handicrafts and organic coffee grown by farmers and created by artisans in the western highlands of Guatemala.
Moonflower Enterprises was established in 2001 by Maria Cuc and her husband, Felipe Gonzales.
Cuc grew up in the highlands and spoke the Mayan language Kakchiquel before she learned Spanish. She was the only one of six siblings to receive a formal education and she used her skills to work with grass-roots organizations dedicated to improving the lives of the Mayan people.
In 1997, she met Gonzales, a second-generation Mexican American who had spent 16 years traveling back and forth from the United States to Guatemala to work for nongovernmental organizations devoted to rural development and social justice.
“The Mayan people are so humble and they make you feel like you’re part of the family,” Gonzales says.
In the last few years, Cuc and Gonzales also have established connections with coffee cooperatives to create Maya Earth Coffee, which is 100 percent certified organic and Fair Trade. It’s “coffee with a cause,” explains Gonzales.
According to the Maya Earth Coffee Web site, the product is grown by Mayan farmers who practice traditional techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation.
These farmers also compost, use natural pest control and are committed to soil and water conservation. They still use the Mayan agricultural calendar to preserve their cultural heritage.
Next to oil, coffee is the second most heavily traded commodity in the world. But most farmers in Guatemala and other parts of the world are caught in a cycle of poverty and debt because they lose their money to middlemen who take advantage of them, according to TransFair USA, the nonprofit that certifies fair-trade products in the United States.
Fair Trade, however, enables farmers who are members of cooperatives to bypass the middlemen and sell directly to U.S. importers like Gonzales and Cuc.
“The farmers are guaranteed a better price,” says Gonzales. “As a principle, Fair Trade is good for the farmer, for the environment, for everyone.”
Throughout the world, Fair Trade has proven to be viable and sustainable, emphasizes Ganesh Himal’s Attwood
“People who are treated fairly want to reach out and share the opportunity with others as they gain financial stability,” she says. “Our work has ripple effects. … It’s about building community.”