“Everything $15 or less!” displays a large white sign, a sign not ordinarily seen in front of a clothing store, much less a fair trade boutique.
But for La Bodega, the new fair trade retail store located in Downtown East Lansing, ordinary wasn’t enough. “We’ve always focused on being cute and funky and unique,” said Denice Miller, the store manager.
Fair trade can be loosely defined as a trading philosophy and a social justice movement that promotes fair wages, better working conditions, and environmental sustainability. La Bodega is the newest addition to a growing list of fair trade shops in and around campus. While some retailers disperse certain fair trade products throughout their stores, few sell fair only trade products.
The fair trade movement first began as a collective grassroots effort within Eastern Europe following World War II. Religious-based organizations, such as the Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation and Vocation (SERRV) and Oxfam, began purchasing handmade wares from countries recovering from the war, primarily in Eastern Europe. These ‘Alternative Trade Organizations’ soon expanded to help others in developing countries.
“SERRV and several others that started buying goods and operating according what evolved into fair trade principles, which are respect for the producer, respect for cultural identity and if when possible cutting out the middle person so more of the price of the product would go to the producer,” explained Paulette Stenzel, a professor of International Business Law in the Department of Finance at the Eli Broad School of Business at MSU. She specializes in fair trade, sustainable development, and environmental law.
Today, fair trade has become a major movement within Europe. Yet within the United States, the movement has been slow to progress. “We are very much the late-comers with respect to that,” Stenzel said. “It’s growing tremendously, but we are definitely in the wake and not the forefront.”
Within Michigan, there is a growing network of fair trade businesses and organizations. Notable retailers include ’10,000 Villages’ in Ann Arbor, ‘Mission Marketplace’ in Chelsea, ‘The Bridge’ in Holland, and ‘Kirabo’ and ‘La Bodega’ in East Lansing.
Gail Catron, a managing partner for Kirabo, contributes the continued success of fair trade within Michigan to the growing awareness of fair trade.
“’The Bridge’ in Holland has been there seventeen, eighteen years, long before the rest of us. And for a while no one really understood the concept,” Catron said. “But as fair trade has become more and more talked about, and now that there’s at least eight stores in Michigan, [The Bridge’s] business is just going crazy.”
Despite its popularity, no single official organization determines which products can be labeled fair trade. Due to this lack of centrality, various organizations have begun developing their own fair trade standards.
“There are a number of organizations that have developed their own fair trade standards and have tailored them to make it easier on themselves,” said Stenzel. “There’s a need for a more standardized definition, a need for more consistent standards.”
Despite such concerns, many within the fair trade community accept the standards set by FINE, an information organization that includes four major Fair Trade networks – the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International, the International Fair Trade Association, the Network of World Shops, and the European Fair Trade Association.
FINE created a set of five fair trade principles. Other organizations, such as Ten Thousand Villages, one of the largest fair trade organizations for hand-made products in the United States, have created similar standards. All fair trade stores differ from one another, including East Lansing’s La Bodega and Kirabo, even though they are close in proximity.
La Bodega adheres to the principles and philosophy of the fair trade movement, but is not certified by any major organization.
“We’ve always supported traditional hand-made goods, things that are native to the country, things that people are recycling and reusing,” Miller explained.
While La Bodega opened its doors this summer, it’s sister store, Orchid Lane, began in 1986. Nancy Elias established Orchid Lane, located in Ann Arbor, after a trip to Ecuador.
“She met a lot of indigenous people, a lot of single mothers, unwed mothers, who had certain skills of sewing or fabric dying or whatnot. And she worked with them to help them organize and group themselves,” Miller said. Elias organized a cooperative within Ecuador, and began to sell the products – primarily colorful wool sweaters – to her customers.
“She really wants them to be strong and do their own thing,” Miller said. “That’s always kind of been our motto. We don’t want to come in and find a cooperative and change them in any way, we want to work with them and grow with them.”
Since its conception, the store has expanded, and now buys from over fifty different producers primarily in India, Nepal and Bali. The owners and store managers discover new suppliers either through word of mouth, or during their own travels abroad.
“If we find a business owner that is nice and amiable, if they’re open to showing us their factory and how things work, if they let us speak with their workers, then we know that they’re trustworthy,” Miller said.
While no formulaic criteria exists, the retailers ensure that their suppliers provide fair working conditions and a fair wage, in addition to using recycled materials.
“We also really like working with women’s cooperatives,” Miller said. “They reinvest better in the community. So women’s cooperatives will provide free child care for their workers or they’ll feed them during the day or something like that.”
Unlike La Bodega, Kirabo actively engages with the larger fair trade network within Michigan. The stores communicate with one another “at least once a month, if not five times a month,” Catron said.
“One thing that is so cool in fair trade … is the transparency and the non-competiveness between stores,” Catron said. “Because fair trade is such a little small piece of the retail market at this point still, we’re all about getting the word out.”
The retailers exchange information such as new suppliers and best-selling items. They recently pooled their money for a joint advertisement in a magazine published at the Ann Arbor street art fair, held annually in July.
Such resources are extremely helpful for new businesses such as Kirabo, which opened in August of 2007.
Catron first encountered fair trade products at a crafts fair held by the Okemos Community Church, in the fall of 2006. “There was a booth of this Nicaraguan pottery. And I thought it was beautiful; it really caught my attention,” Catron said.
A fair trade store, Esperanza en Acción (Hope through Action), created and shipped the pottery. “So I went on Esperanza’s website, read all about it,” Catron said. “I was particularly drawn to one of the employees in the shop. Her name was Jamalette, and it told her story about how she used to live in the dump, a single mom with her children. And that one just went straight to the heart.”
Catron volunteered at the church for six months, helping sell fair trade products, before deciding to open her own fair trade store. Throughout the process of opening her business, she received support from both the Ten Thousand Villages regional manager, and her mentor, Brian Smucker, who also partners with Ten Thousand Villages and owns a chain of stores in California.
Catron must wait a minimum number of years before the store can be certified by a fair trade organization. Until then, “I buy from suppliers that are affiliated [with the Fair Trade Federation] because then I feel much more comfortable that all the principles are being followed,” Catron said.
She also promotes fair trade to her customers. Catron explains the principles of fair trade to her staff, so that they can relay the information to customers. The staff also hands out small cards with information about the product and who made it. “When [customers] can hear the story behind the product, it really helps them understand how they’re benefiting the artisans,” Catron explained. “Everyday we’re telling what it is, and telling the story, and the mission, and what we’re all about. “
Despite efforts made by Catron and others to educate the public about fair trade, many misconceptions remain.
One such misconception characterizes fair trade as “this really left-wing social movement,” sociology and interdisciplinary sciences junior Lauren Hayes said. Hayes is president of the goupt MSU Students for Fair Trade. “It is a social movement, but it is also very business-oriented and there is a lot of economics behind it. It’s really a non-partisan movement that helps bring people out of poverty.”
Stenzel believes that “The public often thinks that it’s a charity … whereas, it’s business. Fair trade is a type of trade. It’s becoming more and more mainstream in the E.U. [European Union] and elsewhere.”
“Business today is now moving toward the realization that we have to look to what is known as the triple bottom line: economy, social equity and environment,” Stenzel said. “And that’s really what fair trade is all about, is looking to the triple bottom line.”
Many also assume that fair trade products are more costly than ‘regular’ products. In order to guarantee a fair wage for workers, buyers set a market price for fair trade goods. And while this price can be more expensive than the regular market price, “It changes a lot,” Hayes explained.” It depends on the market and what kinds of wages are being set.”
Due to fair trade certification fees, some products such as chocolate and coffee are more expensive. “It is a little more pricey in chocolate and coffee, perhaps,” Catron conceded. “But the craft side, that is not the case. […] What you’re getting on the craft side is amazing for the price.”
Higher prices can be a deterrent for customers. Sparty’s convenience stores, located in and around Michigan State University’s campus, sell only fair trade coffees and have encountered problems selling fair trade chocolates. “It was a little higher than the competing chocolates. The product was good, definitely, but being that it was more expensive people kind of shied away from it a little bit,” said Mike Harding, the Operations Assistant Manager for Sparty’s. “It’d be safe to say it wasn’t popular enough to continue, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do it again.”
The price of fair trade certification makes it difficult for smaller cooperatives to become certified. The certification process also requires a certain level of sophistication, “to be able to understand the requirements, being sufficiently literate to wade one’s way through all the paperwork,” Stenzel said.
And while over 2,000 fair trade products are available, including more unconventional commodities, such as fair trade tourism, fair trade certification standards have not been created for every product available. “It’s a laborious and painstaking task to develop standards for a particular product. So there are a number of products that have standards, but there’s a lot left to be done,” Stenzel said.
Businesses and organizations recognize the limitations of fair trade. “It’s not that we’re trying to take over the whole needs of people and say that it could eventually be all fair trade,” Catron said. “What we are trying to do is raise the awareness about what are you paying that worker, what kind of conditions are they working in.” Fair trade’s real aim is to give everyone involved a fair shake.