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Fair Trade Movement Aims for Economic Justice for All

The "fair trade" movement is a global grassroots effort to re-align economic relationships between manufacturers and growers (usually in developing countries) and consumers (usually in the developed West) in terms of social justice rather than monetary profit alone. This month, fair-trade groups in more than 200 countries have been convening "fair-trade fairs" to raise awareness and promote dialog.

The air at the New York Fair Trade Day event was warm and aroma-rich, as vendors and activists from around the world gathered to show off their wares and teach others about their movement.

Scott Codey of the New York Fair Trade Coalition stood proudly near a colorful group of vendor booths, offering everything from stuffed animals made from Malian "mud cloth" to whimsical metal sculptures from Vietnam to papier-mâché bowls made in Haiti.

Codey explained that the fair trade movement is an alternative trading system based on justice and fairness.

"The way globalization has occurred over the past 25 years has been where profits have been elevated to be more important than anything else," he said. "Fair trade is about making sure that the people who grow the things we depend on, who make the things we depend on, get paid squarely for what they produce."

Fair-trade advocates are especially eager to help the family farmers who grow the coffee and cocoa beans that end up in products sold by Starbucks, Cadbury's and other international corporations.

In what Codey calls the "normal" trading system, "… farmers have one guy who will come up to their farm once or twice a season and say, 'Hey, this is what is the market price for coffee is. This is what I am going to give you.' The farmer doesn't have information to make any other… decisions. So he has to sell to that particular person, or he starves."

"In contrast," Codey continued, "Fair trade helps farmers get organized into democratic cooperatives, then bypass the middlemen to bring their product directly to northern markets."

He claimed that, as a result, fair-trade farmers can get three or four times what they can get under "normal" market terms.

At a table nearby, Jennifer Gray of the Autonomie Project was selling sneakers made by a fair-trade cooperative from Pakistan and handwoven clothing made by a cooperative of single mothers in a remote region of Peru. Gray said the opportunity to make and sell these garments has been a boon for the women who once had to depend on local hotels for irregular work at low wages.

"Some days, they would get a telephone call [saying], 'We want you to clean garbage cans' or 'We want you to clean dog poop' or 'Cut the grass,'" she said. "… And they would have to stay, working 12, 14 or 15 hours a day until [the job was] done, because it was the only employment available to them, and they had to feed their families."

Under the fair-trade cooperative system, the women can set their own schedules as long as the orders get done in a timely fashion.

Gray acknowledged that women may not be seeing "mounds of money come in," but "they're so empowered to know that they're useful and can and sustain their families. And that's because of fair trade," she said, beaming.

Learning how to work cooperatively, in a system in which all members benefit equally, takes training, said Bernard Domingo. The artist has been fashioning tabletop motorcycles, horses and other figures out of wire ever since he was a boy in the slums of Zimbabwe. In recent years, Domingo has taught a group of his friends the craft and also how to think and work as a team, rather than as lone entrepreneurs.

"When you do a cooperative, you must not be greedy," he warned, "because when you make a cooperative, it means all you guys are the same."

When one person tries to benefit more than the others, it can spell the doom of a cooperative, he said, "… because then other people will say, 'Why should I be putting more effort?' Then they just stop."

American consumers want to support fair-trade practices and take responsibility for the implications of their purchasing decisions, said the New York Fair Trade Coalition's Scott Codey. But until now, he said, they haven't known how.

"Most people are not indifferent to the suffering of people around the world," he said. "People in the United States, for the most part, simply … don't have [accurate] information. When they are aware of what's happening at the other end of the supply chain, they want to make a difference."

That's why, he said, there has been an "explosion" of fair trade in the United States over the last 10 years.

"After all," adds Codey, "what's fair is fair."