Leaders in the faith and business community join activists for Fair Trade advocacy

January 26, 2010

Several weeks agoJeff Purserwrote abouta discussion to be hosted at the Greater Boston Vineyard.This post follows up on that announcement.

It has just become a part of our culture. A discussion about Fair Trade at the Greater Boston Vineyard involves food. I like to eat, so I’m particularly partial to this development. At our meeting in October we made ice-cream sundaes. Pretty easy right? As my contribution, I stirred up sugar, cocoa, and vanilla — all Fair Trade Certified™, of course — for the chocolate sauce. The result was delicious, if I do say so myself. However, with my meager cooking skills, I was a bit apprehensive about our next culinary challenge. For this month’s meeting, we decided to bake cookies, cake, and other delectables to complement the Equal Exchange hot cocoa and tea that our featured speaker had offered to bring.


Three local leaders were featured as speakers at the meeting. Anna Utech, Interfaith Program director at Equal Exchange, gave a history of the Fair Trade movement from the 1940s to today. Ryan, executive director of Boston Faith & Justice Network, advocated for why the church should be involved in social justice. Liz Green, lead organizer for Fair Trade Boston, outlined the next steps in the campaign and how we might all individually get involved.

I was greatly impressed with the remarks that Anna gave. The level of engagement between her and the audience was electric. Many good questions led to greater understanding. She started with a discussion of how the interrelationship between actors in the north and the south helped to birth the Fair Trade movement.

Anna explained thatin the global south, where colonialism was rampant in the past centuries, there has been a historic oppression of workers and local businesses. Powerful corporations based in countries in North America and South America have historically profited from this relationship, providing cheap goods to consumers in the global north. Note that as decades and centuries passed, this cycle of oppression contributed to the global north becoming richer (and more powerful) as the global south became poorer. This aggressive drive for increased wealth has also led to the environmental degradation and slavery that persists to this day. The graphic below simple depicts the North/South development divide as determined by the United Nations.

world map

Anna pointed to how religious organizations have been directly part of the struggle to free the global south from unfair trade practices since the 1940s. The movement started in the south as local workers united to demand fair wages with northern advocates, often Catholic clergy, marching in solidarity. Soon, groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee and the Church of the Brethren created alternatives to charity by importing handicrafts from their foreign missions to sell in the United States and other rich countries. These two movements created the long-lasting retailers now known as Ten Thousand Villages and SERRV International. “Trade not Aid” became the rallying cry of the movement. In the 1970s attention began to shift from handicrafts to agricultural goods such as coffee. According to Anna Utech, church basements in Holland were one of the earliest places where fairly traded coffee was made available. One quarter of Equal Exchange’s current coffee sales are to faith organizations.

Why coffee? Anna Utech explains that coffee was seen as an agent of change because it is a critical source of income for people in many developing countries, continues to be heavily traded, and is largely grown by small-scale farmers.

Equal Exchange itself was started in 1986by three guys who had come up with the idea while working in the warehouse of a natural foods company. In 1991, the company adopted the new European Fair Trade Certified™ standards, and, then in 1999 it adopted the standards set out by upstart TransFair USA. Equal Exchange continues to push the limits of what is possible for trade by sharing risk with its farmers, offering up to 60 percent of the purchase price before harvest.

After Anna’s talk, Ryan and Liz talked briefly about their respective responses to the issue and, then we opened up the meeting to further questions from the audience. Anna addressed some of the challenges to Fair Trade including the economy (for the first time Equal Exchange has been forced to reduce their contracts), co-ops vs. plantations (cooperatives support democracy and community-based development), big brands (impact of Starbucks, Dole, Nestle). A member of TransFair USA’s board – who showed up unexpectedly – was able to fill in the gaps.

Luckily no one was forced to eat the Swiss chocolate roll that I baked Saturday afternoon. Plenty of other goodies were available. Later in the day, as I reflected back on the meeting, I cut myself a slice to sample the cake. Epic failure. The remainder slid off the tray into the trash.

Jeff Purserhas a real passion to find sustainable solutions to eliminate extreme poverty. He serves as a community organizer for Fair Trade Boston and lives near Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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