Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Manitoba Consumers Vote with their Dollars

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, June 29 / 15

Zack Gross

In “my day” (I've now been a senior for more than a year!), people were voters and donors.  Much larger percentages of the public exercised their franchise at the polls (that is, they voted) at each and every election (municipal, provincial and federal).  And people donated their hard-earned dollars to causes they supported or bought memberships in groups they could relate to.  

Today, it is hard to get 50% of the population out to vote, and while donations continue to come in when a disaster strikes locally or globally, the upward curve has levelled, especially among the younger generation. It has to be said that Manitobans continuously compete with Newfoundlanders for the title of “most generous” Canadians but the trend in our country as a whole is that volunteerism and generosity are under fire.

Today, people under 40 are focused on consumption.  The mall or big box store is where they feel most at home. Where this trend works to the advantage of those seeking a better world (and that is what generosity and citizenship are all about) is when consumerism and altruism collide, such as with fair trade.  A common slogan for buying ethical, green and even buying local is “vote with your dollar”!

The progress made by the fair trade movement is a testament to this slogan.  There are now 21 Fair Trade Towns and Cities across Canada, including Gimli and Brandon in Manitoba, with Winnipeg seemingly soon to join that group.  After just announcing the national Fair Trade Schools program, three high schools, including Stonewall Collegiate here in Manitoba, have met the criteria and several will take that step when classes resume in the fall.  There are 10 Fair Trade Campuses in Canada with many on the cusp, including at least two in our province.

And it isn't only activists that see the connection between buying the goods that they need and want and bettering the lives of farmers and workers in developing countries.  Business is not only getting on the bandwagon, but in many cases is leading the charge.  Whether you are The Fresh Carrot, a health food and fair trade shop in Gimli that is expanding with a store in Winnipeg that will boast a fair trade coffee bar and flower & gift shop, or Cadbury's that has now expanded to five different fair trade certified chocolate bars, including their most popular Diary Milk Bar, altruism and self-interest are driving business to fair trade.

Fair Trade Fridays, a tradition with many Brandon businesses, was partly why the city won a national Fair Trade Award last year from Fairtrade Canada. Businesses whose sales are 100% fair trade have been calling for, and are now planning the launch of a Canadian Fair Trade Chamber of Commerce.  This will be a great support for those wanting to enter the fair trade market in Manitoba, as currently most such businesses are centred in BC, Ontario and Quebec.  For instance, a Fair Trade Certified coffee roaster would do extremely well in our province as to qualify to become a Fair Trade Town, School or Campus, FTC products need to be widely available.

These sectors and initiatives will come together next February when the fourth annual national Fair Trade Conference takes place for three days in Winnipeg.  Producers from developing countries, for instance a handicrafts maker from Guatemala in Central America, will be there to talk about the challenges faced by the poor in our world and how fair trade works to alleviate that poverty.  Business people will be there to find out how to market their fair trade products, how to get them certified or how to expand their offerings.  Advocates will be there to share experiences in making their towns, cities, schools, campuses and events “fair trade certified
.”  Ultimately, people will be there to share a concrete and positive way to help people and the environment through the products we buy.

There is no question that Canadians, and people in the rich world in general, consume too much.  It is said that if everyone consumed like us, we'd need four planet Earths.  We use too much oil and power in general.  We buy too many things that are over-packaged or break easily and are thrown out.  While tens of thousands die each day from the effects of poverty, disease and war, we spend money that could alleviate those situations on ice cream, cigarettes, cosmetics, soft drinks and pet food.  

If we really are addicted to shopping, to consuming, to living it up beyond what is sustainable, can we divert people to fair trade, green, local and other more appropriate products, and make it worthwhile to towns, businesses and institutions to participate?  The answer, from the way the fair trade movement is growing in Canada, is Yes.



Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.


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