Thursday, January 31, 2013

Vote with your Dollars


It’s so easy to rush around the grocery store buying whatever is biggest and shiniest and most appealing without even thinking about what we’re buying or where it came from. But when we do that, we’re handing over control to the large multinationals who stock the supermarket shelves. It’s hard to avoid. We’re short on time, and the large corporations spend millions of dollars ensuring that their products are attractive to consumers, whitewashing any disagreeable aspects of their products, such as toxic pesticides or child labour.

The fair trade movement is driven by grassroots activists who believe that individuals can make a difference. Every time we make a conscious decision to buy food that is local or organic or that provides farmers with a living wage, we are voting with our dollars. And slowly, purchase by purchase, we can change the world.

Origins of Fair Trade 
In 1946, Edna Ruth Byler was struck by the poverty she witnessed on a trip to Puerto Rico. She started selling handcrafted products from developing countries out of the trunk of her car in order to create economic opportunities for local artisans. The support of church groups and the Mennonite Central Committee led to the foundation of Ten Thousand Villages (originally called SELFHELP: Crafts of the World) and to sales of $20 million in 2006.

Starting with handicrafts, fair trade moved on to cover the production and sale of coffee, sugar, tea, chocolate and more.

What is Fair Trade?
Fairtrade Canada defines fair trade as “a different way of doing business. It’s about making principles of fairness and decency mean something in the marketplace.” Fairtrade Canada is an independent body that sets the standards for Fair Trade products and verifies that the producers meet these standards.

The Fairtrade logo guarantees that the farmers receive a fair price for the products. In addition, the Fair Trade producer organizations receive a premium, which goes into a communal fund to improve the workers’ social, economic and environmental conditions. Fair Trade producers also have access to credit and long-term relationships.

Fair Trade also includes ethical working conditions for hired labour in line with ILO Conventions mandating freedom from discrimination, freedom of labour (child or forced labour), freedom of association and collective bargaining, conditions of employment, and occupational health and safety.

Fair Trade producers strive to protect the environment in which they work and live. This includes limiting the use of fertilizers and pesticides, composting, crop rotation, maintaining soil fertility, managing water resources, avoiding the use of GMOs, etc.

Fair Trade International
Fair Trade is a grassroots initiative. As a result, there is more than one organization providing its seal of approval for the products we buy in Canada and the developed world. It pays to read the fine print in order to have a clearer understanding of the goals of each organization. For example, the Rainforest Alliance was set up to “use the power of markets to arrest the major drivers of deforestation and environmental destruction.” They place less emphasis on ensuring fair working conditions for the farmers and labourers.

One of the largest Fair Trade organizations is Fairtrade International. Fairtrade Canada is a founding member of Fairtrade International, which brings together over 20 national Labelling Initiatives (verifying and providing their logo to products that go on sale in their countries) as well as three Producer Networks representing Fairtrade certified producer organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.

Fair Trade Towns and Fair Trade Campuses expand Fair Trade’s scope and power beyond the individual consumer. Volunteers in cities such as Vancouver and Canmore have promoted fair trade on a city-wide level by working with the private sector to increase availability of Fair Trade products in stores and restaurants; lobbying the municipality to stipulate the use of Fair Trade coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate in their procurement policies; and hosting public awareness events and advertising campaigns.

In a similar fashion, Fair Trade Campuses promote the availability and visibility of Fair Trade products on their campus. The University of British Columbia became the first Canadian Fair Trade Campus in 2011, and the local chapter of Engineers Without Borders is promoting Fair Trade on the University of Saskatchewan campus. (Engineers Without Borders is a strong promoter of Fair Trade.)

Canadian Fair Trade Network 
The Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN) got off the ground less than two years ago in an effort to bring together the different groups that promote Fair Trade in Canada.

They have a working team of 7-8 people in Vancouver as well as an eight-person national board of directors. Nancy Allan of Saskatoon is the board’s Vice President. She has been actively promoting Fair Trade since the 1980s and is a founding member of the North Saskatchewan Fair Trade Alliance.

I spoke with Sean McHugh, the Network’s Executive Director, who worked in Kenya for a number of years and was instrumental in establishing Fair Trade Vancouver. Sean explained that the CFTN has three primary goals:
  1. To open up communications channels linking Fair Trade activists (for example, all the Fair Trade campuses) across Canada.
  2. To establish common strategies and tools to assist local grassroots groups. For example, they recently produced a Fair Trade Campus Action Guide to help local campus initiatives get off the ground. They have produced a 24-page colour magazine to explain what Fair Trade is and how it works, which is being distributed both electronically and in print through Ten Thousand Villages and other partners. 
  3. To establish a united, national voice in order to conduct stronger advocacy with national food service companies and larger public institutions. 
 The next time you are grocery shopping, look for the Fairtrade logo. And spend your dollars wisely to support the principles that you believe in.

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