Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Municipalities Saying "Yes" to Fair Trade Policies

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, February 24/08

Zack Gross

Fair trade is having a big impact around the world!  And that’s not just an empty statement. 

In the 1990’s, fairly traded products could only be found in non-profit, charitable shops, marketed with slogans such as “Buy this and help the poor”.  Now, however, fair trade is a billion-dollar business, marketing thousands of products from developing countries in the rich world, and raising the living standards of some five million workers and producers.  As an example, the Mennonite chain of Ten Thousand Villages stores saw its sales increase 18% in the past year.

The private sector is aggressively signing on.  First, small “green & granola” shops took up the cause of fair trade and did well with it as a niche market.  The corporate world is realizing, however, that consumers want fair trade products and expect even the largest companies to respond in some way environmental and labour issues.  Thus, you can now buy fair trade products, from coffee to clothing, in a growing number of big box stores, including Safeway, Robin’s, Costco and Shoppers Drug Mart. 

The push for municipalities to go fair trade began quietly in England in 2001, when a small town, Garstang in Lancashire, signed on with the help of Oxfam, long a proponent of fair trade. 

By 2007, over 300 British municipalities had declared themselves fair trade, including London, Leeds, Bristol and Nottingham.  Almost 300 more were in the process of joining up.

To be a fair trade municipality in England, local governments must agree to pass a motion supporting fair trade, serve fair trade products in their offices and at meetings, and promote the growth of the fair trade sector in local businesses and institutions. 

In Sweden, the city of Malmo, with a population of 270,000, has also gone fair trade and boasts an association of churches, organizations, unions, businesses and government that manage the process.  Says the city’s directory of fair trade purchasing:  “Making an ethical choice is no longer for do-gooders, but fashionable and fun
.” The city website blares “Live Ethically and Ecologically in Malmo!”

In our country, Transfair Canada, the fair trade certification body, has developed criteria for communities going fair trade. 

These include local council support, fair trade products promoted and available in a certain proportion of shops, cafes and workplaces, and the serving of fair trade products at all civic locations and activities.  It would be nice to add the creation of representative community bodies to officially adopt and promote fair trade purchasing and other policies.  This may come in time.

Two Canadian municipalities that have signed on to fair trade are Wolfville, Nova Scotia in April, 2007 and La Peche, Quebec in November, 2007.  Wolfville Mayor Bob Stead said, in a CBC interview, that the fair trade movement gathered steam when citizens realized the connection between global justice issues and “buy local” and fair prices for local farmers.  People were able to see common cause between the needs of people locally and globally, whether they produce crops and diary in Nova Scotia or coffee and cocoa overseas.  Wolfville, an hour’s drive from Halifax, also boasts a large coffee processing plant, Just Us Coffee Roasters Co-operative, which sells its product across Canada.

La Peche, with its largest town Wakefield, not far from Ottawa, signed on a few months later.  The head of a local fair trade steering committee, who also runs a coffee business, said that certification in the municipality brings attention both to fair trade and to the needs of local business.  “It brings people in the community together, helps people overseas, and recognizes our town’s social activism”. 

Back in Wolfville, local leaders concur.  “Buying cheap goods from China is no longer an attractive option, as people become more informed”, says a community services director.  People are also more aware of the environmental cost of importing goods from around the world and, beyond fair trade, realize that they need to buy more locally.

In Manitoba, Brandon’s Mayor Dave Burgess and City Council proclaimed Fair Trade Awareness Week in April of 2006.  Citizens were encouraged to get involved in the fair trade movement and a number of events ensued.  However, this initiative has not yet led to the declaration of a fair trade town.  Some would say that it is easier to “go fair trade” in smaller communities that already have fair trade industries, such as coffee roasters, have strong artistic enclaves, or focus on tourism. 

In large cities, where many fair trade goods are available, the challenge is to move from being able to purchase the goods to actually having fair trade declared public policy.

Fair Trade Manitoba’s One Month Challenge is well underway.  Dozens of churches, offices, schools, organizations, businesses, credit union branches, and more – and a thousand individuals and families – are participating this year around the province, choosing fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate over conventional brands for 30 days. 

As the popularity of fair trade – and an understanding of the issues behind it – grows, it seems certain that fair trade will eventually become as commonplace as regulations supporting disabled people’s access or curbing public smoking.  When that day comes, child slavery on the cocoa plantations of West Africa, loan-sharking in coffee regions of Central America, and spraying poisons on tea estates in India while workers are in the field, will come to an end.

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.

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