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Conscientious Consumption

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In France, July 14 commemorates the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent formation of a republic, restoring that country’s liberty, equality and fraternity. The date took on a parallel meaning for Media last summer when it celebrated its one-year anniversary as America’s first Fair Trade Town.

“It was pretty cool that [the] Second Saturday

fell on Bastille Day this year,” says Drew Arata, co-owner of the local pottery and crafts store Earth & State and a Fair Trade Committee member.

In conjunction with Media’s arts council and other local businesses and organizations, Arata’s group planned an Independence Day celebration with singing, dancing and zydeco music. “George Washington” spoke, and awards were presented to Brattleboro, Vt., the second Fair Trade Town in the U.S.; outspoken fair trade supporter Judy Wicks of White Dog Café; and Garstang, England, the world’s first Fair Trade Town.

While the celebration may have been local, Media’s fair trade status is putting the town on the map globally. “When Hal [Taussig] first approached me with this, I thought he was a little nuts,” says Elizabeth Killough, associate director of Media’s Untours Foundation, which Taussig founded in 1992 to address poverty issues worldwide. “In fact, I think I laughed at the idea. Of course, he’s my boss, so I had to humor him.”

Then Killough did a little research on the Web. “And, boy, was I surprised,” she says. “The amount of information and involvement out there was overwhelming. Europe’s been a part of the movement for more than 20 years, and here I was just hearing about it for the first time.”

Obviously Taussig knew what he was talking about. In the late 1990s, he and longtime friend Judy Wicks funded several shiploads of fair trade coffee from a co-op in Mexico that went to dealers in Colorado and Georgia. At the time, the move was considered progressive both as a business venture and a humanitarian effort; with big coffee companies controlling the marketplace, smaller farmers in less developed nations were struggling.

Taussig has seen much of the world on his own and through Untours, which places its clients in apartments, cottages or cabins so they feel like residents rather than tourists. In his travels, Taussig has come across many struggling farmers and craftspeople. As a result, he began support-ing fair trade more than a decade ago.

“Capitalism for the poor is a lot better than charity is,” says Taussig, whose foundation provides funding to impoverished would-be business owners, giving away 100 percent of its travel company’s profits.

“Hal raises the bar on social consciousness,” says Killough. “He rides his bike everywhere; he lives off his social security. At the end of the month, if he hasn’t spent it all, he gives it away.”

In a free trade economy, a seller is always going to seek the highest price, and a buyer is always going to bargain for the lowest. Thus supply will always drive demand. If coffee builds up on supermarket shelves, retailers will seek a lower-priced product. In a falling market, the farmer absorbs the loss. When the world market price dips below the cost of production, it becomes a struggle for survival for many farming families, who already live in poverty.

Under the rules of fair trade, small producers get fair prices and wages despite market fluctuations. “It’s about leveling the playing field so everyone can thrive,” says Arata.

Originally, Arata opened Earth & State to give local artists access to a wider customer base. As he researched different products and vendors, he discovered a number of crafts produced by co-ops around the world. Not all of them are certified fair trade, but because Drew buys right from the source, he can inquire about their practices and determine if they’re suitable. Environmental sustainability is an important element of fair trade, which is why Arata believes the two movements—buying locally and supporting fair trade—go hand in hand.

“We need to help local artisans to keep the economy going, but we also are aware that buying free trade products impacts poverty on a more global scale,” he says. “It’s all about an ongoing commitment to educating people about—and staying connected to—these issues. There needs to be a balance of both, and the environment ties it all together. I would definitely buy local beans over fair trade beans, because there is less of an impact on the environment.” 

Fair trade empowers workers by investing in their farms and communities and helping them develop the business skills necessary to compete globally. Its principles encompass fair prices and labor conditions; the elimination of middlemen; democratic and transparent organizations; social and business development; scholarship programs; and environmental sustainability. Ultimately, it’s a partnership that seeks greater equity in international trade for excluded and disadvantaged producers by providing better trading conditions, promoting development opportunities and raising awareness about the exploitation of women and children—many who are forced to work rather than attend school. “Six-year-old kids should not be picking cocoa beans or bananas,” says Killough.

The movement’s most widely recognized organizations are Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, which establishes and monitors fair trade criteria, and FairTrade USA, the only independent, third party certifier of fair trade practices and products in the U.S.

Fair trade labeling applies primarily to agricultural commodities, although there are some crafts, clothing and other merchandise whose importers and retailers adhere to its general principles. Fair trade items available in the U.S. from abroad include coffee, tea, herbs, cocoa/chocolate, fresh fruit (bananas, pineapples and mangoes), vanilla, white and brown sugar, rice, and spices. As of now, pecans are the first U.S. crop being considered for fair trade protection. Flowers, cotton, honey, sports balls, wine and beer are available in the European market.

In the end, consumer awareness is crucial in order to increase availability and demand for fair trade products. The greatest impact is through the coffee industry—a circle of growers, roasters, importers, exporters and distributors that has catapulted coffee beans into the second most traded commodity in the world, behind oil.

“A cup of coffee may seem like an insignificant part of the daily routine in the lives of most Americans,” says Brett Endicott, co-owner of Burlap and Bean Coffee Company, an independent roaster/café in Newtown Square. “But the magnitude of people who work in the coffee trade is massive. Most struggle to even cover the cost of production, forcing a situation of hopeless debt. The social aspects of fair trade can drastically enrich the lives of farming families around the globe; the other major facet [addresses] the environmental aspects of coffee tree growth and harvesting.”

The disparity in price between fair trade and “regular” coffee is minimal. So to those supporting its purchase, there’s no excuse not to buy. “Ultimately, it boils down to cents per cup, not dollars,” says Taussig. “And it takes so little to make a difference in these people’s lives.”

Cocoa/chocolate is another largely traded commodity in which consumers can make a difference. This past Hallo-ween, Media’s Fair Trade Committee participated in “reverse trick-or-treating,” where merchants and residents dispersed fair trade chocolate along with their anti-child-labor stance.

But is it right to make global poverty such a priority when conditions are so miserable in our own cities?

“One-billion people live on $2 a day in the Third World,” says Jennifer Garay of Oké USA, a company that represents banana farmers in Ecuador and Costa Rica. “In Third World countries, poverty takes on a different meaning.”

Killough echoes these sentiments. “Fair trade raises standards of living and allows families to stay together, stay on their land and not need to emigrate to the U.S. for work,” she says, pointing out that, for this reason, fair trade appeals to conservatives and liberals alike.

Along with Taussig, Killough and Arata, Media’s Fair Trade Committee includes Selene Whole Foods Co-op’s Ira Josephs, Safeguard Insurance’s Tom Hibberd, advertising executive Mia Mendoza and several others from her firm, Financial Design Partners’ Morris Kaufman, and award-winning filmmakers Rich Hoffman and Maria Erades. Media Borough Council has shown its support, with councilwoman Monica Simpson championing the cause and president Frank Daly planning to visit Garstang, England, this year.

The enthusiasm has spread like wildfire. “As soon as we declared Media a Fair Trade Town, we started receiving calls from towns and cities all over the country asking for guidance,” says Killough. “We also received a call from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, which wanted to become the first Fair Trade Town of Canada. Lots of our time in Media has gone to helping other towns.”

And the downside? There doesn’t seem to be one.

“Becoming a Fair Trade Town was unanimous,” says Rachel Ben Ari, co-owner of Ben Ari Diamonds. “But it’s not the only thing Media is about. We have high-end shops, a wonderful mix of restaurants, music events, new stores. This town is up-and-coming on many levels.”

And while “there’s no doubt that the promotion of Media will always have ‘Fair Trade Town’ attached to it,” says Arata. “We aren’t going to alienate people who don’t sell the products. It’s great when we’re united, but any act of social consciousness is viewed respectfully.”

Killough, for one, has high expectations for fair trade in Media. “My hope for the next year is [to see] three times as many stores and businesses selling and using fair trade products, for everyone in town to know what fair trade really means, and for Media to continue to be an inspiration to other communities.”

To learn more about Media’s fair trade exploits, go to visitmediapa.com.

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