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Debating Fair Trade

"Is it fair trade when you get designer prices for it?"

"New York educational standards should require students to learn the relationship between their shirts and the global world."

"We need to connect fair trade with local poverty in Ithaca."

Such were the thought-provoking comments at a March 24 workshop, "Fair Trade and Local Development Initiatives," for area K-12 teachers on the Cornell campus in Ithaca, New York. Among the educators gathered for the day-long workshop was a team of Lehman Alternative Community School (ACS) teachers and two representatives from Ten Thousand Villages, a national fair-trade retailer with a store on the Ithaca Commons.

Fair trade aims to pay low-income artisans and farmers in many parts of the world a "livable wage" goods. The fair-trade movement is growing, and the phrase is getting catchy. In a recent cabinet meeting even President Bush embraced it, proclaiming, "I'm a free trader, but I'm also a fair trader."

Discussing fair trade at Cornell, while sipping on certified coffee. Bush was referring to dwindling high-wage manufacturing jobs in the U.S. But fair trade mostly focuses on primary producers and farmers in developing countries. Since two billion people live on less than $2 a day (and one out of seven people go to bed hungry), there is plenty of opportunity for creating fair trade relationships.

This spring ACS teachers will bring a group of students to Mexico where they will visit a coffee cooperative. According to workshop speaker Liam Brody from Oxfam International, coffee is one of the most heavily traded commodities in the world. A quarter of a billion people rely on coffee for a living (see "Grounds for Change," November/December 2005

"We as consumers have amazing power and even more amazing responsibility," says Brody, who drinks only fairly traded coffee. "It's the little choices we make, every day."

ACS teachers want students to learn responsible consuming, but also promote the idea of global citizenship as producers of products and services. "We've been hanging the whole fair trade issue on the Declaration of Human Rights," said Karen Adams, ACS social studies coordinator, who led the afternoon discussion on applying fair trade in the classroom. A new web site (through the Sustainable Tompkins site) will help teachers and students learn through fair trade. "Fair trade is a gateway to many other things," said Adams. "For some reason, the phrase works."

On the surface, offering a better price for coffee and crafts is simple. But as it becomes more widespread and formalized through certification guidelines, fair trade can get complicated. "Can you give sustainable living to weavers when the prices are so high you can only give them two to three sales a year?" asked speaker Charlotte Jirousek, a Cornell professor of textiles and apparel who is also a scholar of fair trade and Turkish rugs.

Turkish rug weavers tend to be women constricted by traditional Turkish customs such as turning over all wages to fathers and husbands and having their handiwork and proceeds stockpiled as dowries to net higher-income husbands. These women may be better off working in the numerous Turkish factories that offer decent wages and benefits, and indeed many of them are choosing to do so.

And then there's the ethical question of whether to even try to perpetuate arthritis-inducing, back-straining rug weaving in the name of cultural preservation of an art dating to the fifth century BC.

Speaker Alicia Swords, assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College, highlighted another fair trade growing pain: big corporations getting on the bandwagon cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico recently recoiled from a deal with Starbucks after the corporation insisted on involving a controlling intermediary. The cooperative dropped the deal and created a stir in the coffee-trade industry.

Starbucks purchases a small percentage of its coffee through fair trade networks but touts its efforts grandly. "There are deep conversations in the fair trade movement about whether big corporations should be allowed to carry fair trade labels," says Brody of Oxfam. "The systems of fair trade only grow when we wrestle with these issues."

All of these bumps in the road provide fertile ground for student debates and projects. "The fair trade name is getting rapidly marketed," notes Angela Caprone from Ten Thousand Villages, whose 150 nationwide stores provide "vital, fair income to Third World people by marketing their handicrafts and telling their stories." Part of Caprone's job is to reach out to local schools to promote fair trade education. The ACS teachers and a contingent from Homer High are planning to meet again this year to further their curriculum development efforts.

Fair trade is strongly related to "micro-credit" lives of producers. The workshop included a screening of the film Moving Forward, directed by Karen Zider, which chronicled the impact of micro-credit on the lives of three Colombian women entrepreneurs. The women found independence and a way out of abusive relationships through small-scale, local retailing. As is the case with all fair trade, a little bit of cash makes a huge difference in their lives.

The workshop was jointly sponsored by the Cornell Latin American Studies
Program, Institute for African Development, and Institute for European
Studies, funded in part by U.S. Department of Education National Resource Center grants.

ALICE HORRIGAN, a regular contributor to E, is outreach coordinator for the Cornell Institute for European Studies, as well as a journalist, business writer, and glass jewelry artist.