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Whole Towns Going Fair Trade

  • First coffee and chocolate, now entire towns obtain Fair Trade status
    San Francisco is the seventh American community to join the movement
    By Ross Burns
    Plenty, 6/6/08
    Straight to the Source

Ama Kade harvests cocoa pods in Ghana. Kanya Osori grows rice in northeastern Thailand. Palemon Cuno Surco creates traditional Peruvian pottery in a small village near Cusco. They live thousands of miles away from each other, speak different languages and their cultures couldn't be more different. But they do have something in common: people in Taos, New Mexico, and Media, Pennsylvania, want to buy their goods and pay them a fair price. So do the people in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These communities are part of a small but growing group committed to supporting fair trade, so much so that they've gone through the steps to become recognized as Fair Trade Towns.

Products like coffee, rice, vanilla and tea that are certified fair trade assure decent working and living conditions, a fair price, and dignity for the people who produce them. It assures sustainable farming practices and investment in the local community. Fair trade is also good for communities here.

"Fair Trade means community. It's people coming together to improve their world.  Whether it's farmers coming together in a cooperative, or consumers coming together as a community to reach out to those very same farmers, in the end it's about the relationships we build," says James Guzzi, outreach coordinator for the fair trade certification agency Transfair, and one of the individuals who worked to make San Francisco the country's seventh, and most recent, Fair Trade Town, or in this case, Fair Trade City.

The movement started in Europe where there are several hundred fair trade towns officially recognized by a fair trade certification body, like Britain's Fairtrade Foundation. The model is a bit different this side of the pond. There is no single governing organization for fair trade towns in the US. Instead, it's up to the communities themselves to declare their Fair Trade Town status once they have met the five goals put forth by Fair Trade Towns USA, an independent organization created by local and national fair trade advocates. Not having an official certification process makes it easier to include fairly traded crafts and other products that may not carry the Transfair seal but come from businesses that follow the same principles.

Even though San Francisco only declared itself a Fair Trade Town this past May 10, the groundwork had been laid long before. "Basically, we had the cart before the horse. We passed our laws long before there was a movement to recognize us, then went back and built the movement to recognize it," says Guzzi. By 2005, the city already had some of the strongest fair trade and anti-sweatshop laws in the country, but in a city with a population of 760,000, getting Fair Trade City status took a little longer than it would for a smaller town.

The 18-month process in Taos, a town of 5,000 people, was relatively speedy compared to the three years it took in San Francisco. "It wasn't difficult, just time consuming," says Steven Gloss, who started the process in Taos. "There were lots of initial meetings with town staff and procurement people to educate them about fair trade. Once they understood what it was, they've been on board and enthusiastic supporters."

One of the five goals towns must meet is selling a range of fair trade products at local retailers and cafes. In a town the size of Taos, that translates into at least one retailer that sells fair trade products for every 2,500 people. Taos already had more than the minimum. In San Francisco, it worked out to 76 retailers, one for every 10,000 people. In a progressive city like San Francisco, that wouldn't seem difficult to accomplish, but Guzzi confesses it was hard three years ago to find a cup of fair trade coffee in the city. There's been a tremendous increase in availability recently.

According to Fair Trade Towns USA coordinator Sara Stender, the goal of forming a steering committee is a critical but often difficult part of the process no matter the size of the town. "Obviously, this is a key step in order to effectively meet all of the other goals. But people are busy and typically have many interests and obligations," says Stender.

The ideal committee is made up of members from different sectors of the community. With retailers, educators, the director of the chamber of commerce, and an Episcopal priest, the Taos committee fits the bill. Gloss and the other committee members continue to meet for a couple hours every week.

Media, Pennsylvania's, committee meets every Thursday at 9:00 AM and has met regularly for almost three years. In July 2006, Media, which lies on the western fringes of suburban Philadelphia, earned the distinction of becoming the first Fair Trade Town in the US, nearly a year before Brattleboro, Vermont, became the second. Because of its experience, Media is the town others look to for examples of both the benefits and pitfalls.

"We've had growing pains," says Media committee member Drew Arata. "There are things we didn't anticipate, like people having trouble seeing how being a Fair Trade Town fits in with their businesses, especially when it's not a business that sells any kind of food products or is a business that isn't interested in crafts in a traditional sense."

But there has also been a renaissance of sorts. It's brought both customers and businesses to town. Three days after Media declared itself a Fair Trade Town, Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit fair trade retailer that now has 80 locations, announced it would be opening a store in Media. But the greatest benefit Arata sees is the increase of opportunities to educate consumers.

Educated consumers help Media, or any fair trade town or city, reach the ultimate goal - sustaining the program. And that sustainability falls on the community. Whether it's in Ghana, Peru, Thailand or the US, community is what fair trade is all about.

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