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Food and Drink

Don’t worry, buy happy

With the U.S.-based Community Food Security Coalition holding its annual conference in Vancouver this week, I can’t think of a better way to establish food or any other kind of security than ensuring that hungry people, wherever they live, get enough to eat and live decently.

While there are more than enough people without enough in our own backyard to shame us all, poverty and hunger in developing countries reach an even greater magnitude by about a million-fold.

Unless you’re up for volunteering with Oxfam or Habitat for Humanity on a project in a less fortunate part of the world, one of the easiest and most effective things you can do to tip the balance more equitably is to buy fair trade goods.

If you don’t have the fair trade habit, now is a good time to start. October, that time of accelerated purchasing for all things scary and merry, from Halloween to Christmas, has been dubbed fair trade month in the U.S. It’s a timely concept worth putting on our radar screens, too.

You’ve likely seen a fair trade logo on a label or ad, or on a shop window sign or website. But most of us don’t really understand what it means in all senses of the word.

If you want a formal definition, Wikipedia offers one in spades: Fair trade is an organized social movement that promotes equitable standards for international labour , environmentalism , and social policy, whether or not the goods carry one of the recognized logos such as “Fairtrade” or “Fair Trade Certified”.

Fair trade labeling indicates that certain standards have been met through a system of monitoring and auditing. The marks act like a guarantee, but some unlabelled products may still be fairly traded despite their lack of certification by an appropriate agency.

Fair trade is rooted in notions of sustainability and conscience. Trade, not aid, is a common mantra. Suppliers are often organized into unions or cooperatives with a more direct link to the consumer. Many of the middlemen, who often earn a ridiculously high portion of the profits, are eliminated. The bottom line is that people who don’t happen to live in a privileged country are able to earn a fairer income for their work.

The focus of the movement is on exports from developing countries to developed countries. The subtext: current international trade policies are unfair, especially to those in the developing world. Many argue that this is obviously the case, whether they live in a developing country or not. In fact, people argued so much so at the 2003 World Trade Organization summit in Cancun, Mexico that they shut the talks down.

While most of us have only heard about fair trade in the last 10 years or so, and only then in the context of coffee or maybe chocolate and bananas, the concept actually started almost 60 years ago and had nothing to do with agricultural products. Handicrafts made by people in developing countries were sold in shops run by Oxfam or Mennonites (Ten Thousand Villages).

Most of us make the fair trade association with coffee for a couple of good reasons. After the collapse of the international coffee marketing board in 1989, world coffee prices became notoriously unfair for growers and farmers. Prices steadily collapsed until they reached near 100-year lows.

So coffee became something of a philosophical and ethical battleground, with goliaths like Starbucks and Kraft pitted against local fair trade coffee roasting companies, like Saltspring Coffee Co. (which, serendipitously, also happens to supply certified organic and shade-tree grown products).

Fair trade coffee may have a relatively high profile, but if you snoop around a bit, fair trade goods also include everything from T-shirts to furniture and cut flowers. In the food aisles, you can find fair trade tea, chocolate, sugar, bananas, mangos, rice, quinoa, spices and wine — the list grows as our understanding and demand does.

If you like the idea of fair trade and want to keep it flowing, check out:

• TransFair Canada (www. to link to all kinds of global fair trade shopping connections.

• Saltspring Coffee, available at Big Smoke Mountain BBQ, Nesters Market and Creekside Market in Whistler, Pemberton Valley Supermarket in Pemberton, Naked Lunch in Squamish and tons of stores and cafes in the Lower Mainland.

• Ten Thousand Villages at two locations in Vancouver: 1204 Commercial Drive (604-323-9233) or 2150 West Fourth Ave. (604-730-6831).


Waking up to the real smell of coffee

One award-winning documentary is making big dents in coffee-buying habits and creating a big buzz on the festival circuit at the same time. Black Gold: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee tracks the efforts of Tadesse Meskela to get the 74,000 members of his Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in Ethiopia a fair price for their coffee.

In one telling scene, coffee growers chuckle and shake their heads in what could be a combination of disbelief and profound resignation when Tadesse tells them that for a pound of coffee, Americans pay 2,000 times the amount the farmers get.

The film had one person at the Sundance Festival reaching for his cheque book to bequeath $10,000 for a school for the small village where the cooperative is centred. Another viewer purportedly dumped all $10,000 worth of her Starbucks shares after seeing the documentary.

Black Gold was two and a half years in the making, but no one from Starbucks, which offers only one fair-trade coffee, or any of the three other multinationals that pretty much control the conventional coffee trade was available for comment.


Fairly solid ways to build fairness

The fair trade system benefits more than 800,000 farmers organized into cooperatives and unions in 48 countries. The following principles inform fair trade. Though they may seem a bit dry to wade through, once you grasp their essence, you can see what a powerful agent of change a fair consumer choice can be. It may not be a perfect system, but each decision you make can be a start in:

• Creating opportunities for people who are economically disadvantaged or have been marginalized by conventional trading systems.

• Providing a fair price for products so growers and producers can earn a living. For commodities, farmers receive a stable, minimum price. In the case of fair trade coffee that currently means about US$1.26 per pound. When cooperatives are involved, funds are funneled into community projects like schools or wells for clean water.

• Eliminating forced labor and exploitative child labor.

• Helping producers access financial and technical assistance that make production easier, more efficient or environmentally better.

• Building sustainable production and healthy, safe working conditions.

• Transparency and accountability. All aspects of trade and production are open to public scrutiny.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who wonders if we could get even fairer than fair trade.