Fair Trade Industry Finds Success
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
January 11, 2010
Fair trade industry finds success
by Melissa Domsic
EAST LANSING - Are you in need of some colorful stationery, handmade
from elephant dung?
Kirabo's got it.
OK, so maybe that's not your style. But Kirabo, as a "fair trade" store,
also sells everything from handmade instruments from Nepal, onyx stone
boxes from Pakistan, pine needle baskets from Nicaragua and a wide array
of unique items from artisans in more than 30 developing countries.
The merchandise is all fair trade, meaning laborers who produce the
crafts and foods - including those from Third World countries - are paid
"fair" wages. Several other criteria also are met, such as guaranteed
minimum floor prices.
There is no set scale for prices and wages. But associations such as
TransFair USA, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit, list several
standards that must be met for products to be certified as fair trade.
Despite the struggling retail industry, area fair trade merchants say
business is doing well as more people learn about fair trade principles.
"As the economy tanked and people were donating less to charities, they
know if they shop fair trade, they're doing two things at once," said
Gail Catron, managing partner of Kirabo.
Catron said fair trade customers can buy unique gifts while also
contributing in a charitable way to disadvantaged artisans.
Kirabo, named after the Ugandan word for "gift," opened in August 2007
at 215 Ann St. in East Lansing.
Catron, 56, had never heard of "fair trade" until December 2006, when
she saw a booth of Nicaraguan gifts at a craft sale in Haslett.
Volunteers from Okemos Community Church were selling the items for
Esperanza en Accion, a Nicaragua-based fair trade organization.
Catron was inspired by the story of a poor Nicaraguan villager
struggling to make ends meet, so she started volunteering for the group.
Then, after visiting a fair trade store in Ann Arbor, Catron knew she
had to open her own. She had recently earned her business degree from
Michigan State University and couldn't find a job.
"What attracted me is now someone can earn a living that they should
have been earning, and also the fact that there's no harm to the
environment, no child labor, no sweatshop working conditions," she said.
Kirabo sells items from more than 15 fair trade organizations, most of
which are members of the Fair Trade Federation. Most items sell for
under $35. But some, such as more expensive pottery, can go for more
than $100, Catron said.
Food is more costly
Fair trade crafts are typically less expensive than handmade crafts from
the United States or other non-fair trade suppliers, Catron said. But
fair trade food, such as coffee, is usually more expensive because of
the costly certification process, she said.
Catron is Kirabo's only full-time employee. There are usually six
part-time workers, as well.
She expects 2009 sales to exceed $200,000, about 8 percent higher than 2008.
Business also is going well at La Bodega, which opened in August at 619
E. Grand River Ave. in East Lansing.
The shop sells handmade items bought directly from artists and
cooperatives in several different countries. All merchandise is sold for
The products aren't necessarily fair trade certified, but general
manager Denice Miller said La Bodega does its own importing to ensure
everything is done in a fair manner.
"We're doing far better than we ever would have hoped for a first-year
business," Miller said.
She did not provide specific financial figures.
Though the fair trade movement is growing in the United States, it's
more prevalent in Europe, where the concept has been gaining popularity
since post-World War II, said Paulette Stenzel, a professor of
international business law at Michigan State University.
At least 72 percent of adults in the United Kingdom recognize the fair
trademark on products, while that figure is less than 20 percent in the
United States, according to Stenzel and the London-based Fairtrade
The fair trade movement started taking off in the United States about 10
years ago with fair trade sales at churches and synagogues, Stenzel said.
Despite the recession, Stenzel said fair trade sales have increased.
Equal Exchange, a fair trade cooperative, saw 17 percent sales growth
from 2007 to 2008, according to the co-op's annual report.
East Lansing Food Cooperative sells Equal Exchange products such as
chocolate and coffee.
Fair trade sales at the co-op have been steady, said David Finet,
general manager of the store located at 4960 Northwind Drive, East Lansing.
Finet said he's seen more local churches and other organizations get
involved in fair trade sales.
"Even (Kirabo), the fact that the entire store, fully staffed, can have
that sort of presence in the community, shows that it's becoming
something that people are much more familiar with," he said.
What is fair trade?
An alternative way of doing business that promotes long-term
relationships between producers in developing countries and consumers in
developed countries, such as the United States.
Fair trade calls for fair wages, cooperative workplaces, consumer
education, environmental sustainability, financial and technical support
and community development.
Source: Paulette Stenzel, professor of international business law at
Michigan State University
Traders who purchase Fair Trade Certified products agree to four principles:
• Pay at least a price to producers that covers the costs of sustainable
production (the Fairtrade Minimum Price)
• Pay a premium that producers can invest in development
• Partially pay in advance when requested
• Sign contracts that allow for long-term planning and sustainable
• Fair Trade Federation:
Source: Fair Trade Federation
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