Peace Center’s fair-trade holiday gift offerings bring justice to the Third World
It seems almost every consumer item sold these days in America is made in China or Mexico. Clothing, books, toys, building materials, electronic gear—just about anything that can be fabricated or produced by hand or machine—shows up in our stores at prices that seem ridiculously low when you think of the hours, materials and energy that must have gone into producing, transporting and proffering them.
One major factor in these lower prices is that workers in China and Mexico might make 25 cents to a dollar an hour on average, respectively, and while his race to the wage bottom obviously helps keep costs “reasonable” for consumers here, it’s a very unreasonable situation for those who labor for next-to-nothing.
The current global system of doing business is called “free trade,” but the “free” has more to do with the rights of big corporations than those of small producers and individuals in developing countries. According to the Fair Trade Federation, the result of the global economic order under NAFTA and GATT has been a growing gap between rich and poor, where millions of people toil in miserable working conditions for a pittance, often for long hours, and without health benefits or the right to unionize. Up to half the money invested by foreign corporations is quickly taken back out of the country, thus dealing a blow to the local economy, and the natural environment is often degraded or devastated in the process of extraction and production.
As explained on its Web site, the FTF is an “association of wholesalers, retailers, and producers whose members are committed to providing fair wages and good employment opportunities to economically disadvantaged artisans and farmers worldwide.”
Sounds nice. But does it work?
Ty Benoit, Chico Peace and Justice Center board member and history instructor at Butte College, believes the answer is, “yes.” She has first hand experience with the positive effect fair trade has on people, having traveled extensively in Latin America and Asia on both Fulbright and NEH grants. “This especially empowers women and cooperatives, like those that I met in India last summer, who proudly displayed their Grameen Bank passbooks and showed us their woven fabrics. Without groups like Ten Thousand Villages [one of the FTF associated organizations], they would have few alternatives for marketing their products,” she said.
Sheldon Praiser, coordinator of PeaceCraft, the Fair Trade program for the CPJC, whose understated and low-key demeanor belies the stereotypical image of a polemical crusader-with-a-cause, discussed the program in the Peace Center office in downtown Chico, where Fair Trade crafts are displayed on every available table space. He said the Center buys goods from Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit run by the Mennonites, and is dedicated to “paying a fair wage in the local context” to artisans, cooperatives, and producers of a variety of goods. And according to Benoit, the overall goal of the PeaceCraft fair trade project is to “encourage the development of fair trade in the Chico area so that we can help to create a sustainable world for all families.”
But doesn’t paying higher wages mean higher prices at the retail end? Isn’t paying a fair wage just a noble “nice idea” that can’t possibly succeed in the cutthroat global economy?
Praiser explained that prices are competitive because Ten Thousand Villages is non-profit, and is therefore not seeking to charge the highest price possible. Also, there are no middlemen other than the retailer—in this case the Peace Center—which buys directly from Ten Thousand Villages, which buys directly from the artisans. The cost-reduction in those two factors thus defies conventional wisdom and allows Ten Thousand Villages to pay the actual producers of the product a “living wage.”
For example, according to the FTF website, Haitians who sew clothes for the US market receive 1% of the retail price. Fair Trade coffee producers receive up to 25%, and some producers of other products even up to 40% of the final retail price.
“People usually comment that the goods are much cheaper than they thought they would be,” said Praiser.
The idea to initiate this in Chico got its impetus from Benoit, who on different occasions serendipitously encountered Ten Thousand Villages stores in both Sonoma and Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I spent a lot of time discussing fair trade with both of the store managers. Both were incredibly helpful and open to assisting us as we considered opening a store. They opened their books, shared inventory lists, etc. It just seemed like a great way to help people in the third world.”
Initiated in November of last year, the program has so far been well-received not only by the conscientious “regulars” who make up a good part of the clientele, but also from “ordinary Chico residents,’ said Praiser. He was impressed that so many people at a recent DCBA sidewalk sale responded favorably not only to the goods offered, but also to the whole idea of fair trade.
Currently, goods are sold as a highlight to the holiday season at the Peace Center and at special open house dates, as well as special benefit events such as the annual dinner at the CARD center, the “PEA(ce) Soup” cook-off, and Give-Peace-a-Dance. The Center is always looking for people who would like to host a “Fair Trade Festival” in their house.
Praiser’s dream is to eventually have a small storefront in the downtown area, year-round (volunteers are encouraged to contact the Peace Center).
Most of the goods currently displayed for sale at the Peace Center are made in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. Items include jewelry, musical and percussion instruments, toys and games, baskets, personal accessories, housewares, collectibles and other crafts. They also have Fair Trade coffee, tea and chocolate.
“At the heart of fair trade is that the person who is doing the labor is being paid fairly for the labor," said Praiser. "It fits in with our sense of economic justice. We want to get back to that core of humanity, where once our needs have been met, we’re able to find time to help in our community."