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by: PHOTO COURTESY OF PAMELA ELLGEN - Jeff Owen co-owns Evergreen Fair Trade on Northwest 23rd where he sells exclusively fairly-traded food, clothing and gifts.If you have questions about the conditions and compensation for the workers who produce the products you buy, the answers aren't always easy to find.


Some companies offer fair-trade products as a more expensive option within an existing product line, (cough, cough, Starbucks). However, this begs the question of whether the laborers who created the other products – the conspicuously not fair trade ones – were paid equitably for their work.

However, other companies in Portland and around the country are forming around the belief that you shouldn’t have to choose between paying fairly and purchasing the products you want. They’re created by conscious capitalists, those with a triple bottom line who fall under a new, albeit unofficial, designation: not-just-for-profit.

Local companies embracing this ethos are building their businesses around the principles of The Fair Trade Federation, an association that strengthens and promotes North American organizations fully committed to fair trade. They are committed to creating opportunities for economically and socially marginalized producers, paying promptly and fairly, supporting safe and empowering working conditions and ensuring the rights of children.

Jeff Owen, co-owner of Evergreen Fair Trade on Northwest 23 Ave. has found that these principles really resonate with Portlanders, who tend to embrace social and environmental responsibility. Owen opened the shop in 2012 with his wife Csilla, whom he met while working for the Peace Corps in Romania. Together they sell both fairly-traded and locally-made goods such as jewelry, soap, clothing, furniture and home décor.

Owen says that while most people learn about fair trade through the coffee and chocolate retailers, fair trade within the artisan community has existed for much longer. The way it typically works is that artisans form a cooperative to make a product, such as jewelry or handbags, and then sell the product either to wholesalers or directly to retailers, he explains.

“Fair trade works better than charity,” he says. “It helps artisans build a business model.”

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF PAMELA ELLGEN - Local coffee roaster Kittridge & Fredricksons Café Jondo blend won the Best Coffee in Oregon Gold Cup Signature Blend in 2013.Portlanders Johan and Tracy Wulfers came to a similar realization during an extended visit to West Africa. They observed women who were creating beautiful handcrafts but unable to sell them profitably in the local market. The couple returned to the United States with a vision for building an economic partnership designed to help the women lift themselves out of poverty.

“You can give people all this stuff, but it doesn’t have the same value,” Johan says. “People feel the best about themselves when they’re doing something productive and they’re making a living from that productivity.”

The Wulfers formed the Ojoba (oh-jo-buh) Collective, a cooperative of 50 women producing handcrafts and shea butter in a small village in Ghana. All received equal pay and the couple insisted that no woman be excluded from the cooperative based on religion or tribal affiliation.

During its 11 years in existence, the Ojoba Collective has experienced steady growth and slowly expanded to its present size of 400 women. Four years ago, after recognizing that shea butter had the greatest commercial viability, the company put all of its efforts into growing that product line, and now sells primarily as a wholesaler to other retailers, including many European companies and LUSH cosmetics.

Sustainability

One of the potential pitfalls of establishing fair-trade relationships with cooperatives in developing countries is the temptation for artisans to put all of their proverbial eggs in one basket, Johan says. To stave off over-dependence, Ojoba offers microenterprise training to the women in the cooperative so they can develop additional business ventures.

"They don’t have the marketing and business background, so we’re slowly teaching them,” Johan says.

In addition to the fair wages paid, the Ojoba Collective also offers a dividend that can be spent on community development. The Wulfers recognize that this kind of support must be what the community actually wants. Some organizations go into a developing country and say, “We’re going to build a school,” Johan says. “But, they don’t even want a darn school! That’s not the way you should do it,” he says. “The fundamental thing we’ve done differently than other companies, is that we’ve spent time on the ground, asking, ‘what do they need?’”

Stories of Hope

Many of the products sold by fair-trade retailers go far beyond economic empowerment to tell compelling stories of hope and reconciliation. For example, Evergreen sells olive oil soap with lemon and Dead Sea mud handcrafted by Sindyanna of Galilee. The group of artisans works in the West Bank and is a collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian women.

In Ghana where the Ojoba Collective operates, domestic violence was prevalent due to extreme poverty and a male-dominated society. However, women have become empowered through their employment, and violence has become almost non-existent. Women are also now more likely to engage in social relationships with one another, afford the cost of education for their children and have access to health care.

Education

In the early days of the fair trade business model, educating consumers was an ever-present challenge.

“People didn’t know what fair trade was,” Johan says. They would suggest that he really was just exploiting the village he worked in or that fair trade only increased pay by a few nickels.

Though fair trade has become a household name, particularly in Portland, talking about it with those who aren’t familiar with the concept can be challenging. Owen isn’t sure he’s converted anyone to the fair trade ethos who wasn’t already on board. “Shoppers don’t want to listen to all the time,” he says.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF PAMELA ELLGEN - LUSH Fresh Handmade Cosmetics sources its shea butter from fair trade sources, including the Ojoba Collective.Fortunately, the Fair Trade Federation and other activist organizations has done a lot to educate consumers and ensure compliance with those claiming to be fair trade. Sarah Mitts is the founder of AWAZ Handcrafts, a Portland-based fair trade retailer of handmade clothing and jewelry, as well as co-chair of the Northwest Fair Trade Coalition, a group of fair trade advocates, business owners, community organizations and individuals.

She has seen the market for fair trade suffer in the context of the “buy local” movement but points out that when consumers buy fair trade products from a locally-owned business, they are not only supporting their local economy, but they're also helping to build an ethical economy based on human rights and social justice.

“As Portlanders set the stage for building a green economy, why not look at it holistically and honor the person behind the product the same by ensuring they receive a fair wage for their work?” she says. “That's a true solidarity economy and a vision for Portland I think people want to create. It takes action and we have to work harder.

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