Fair Trade Visits Swarthmore

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Tuesday, in celebration of Fair Trade Month, over 25 Swatties gathered in the Lang Center to hear and learn about fair trade, its relation to social change, and 10,000 Villages Company’s contributions. 10,000 Villages is one of the world’s largest fair trade organizations and works with over 30 artisan groups in more than 38 countries worldwide. Doug Dirks, the Public Relations representative of 10,000 Villages, incorporated in his personal stories in his hour-long lecture about fair trade and gave an in-depth background about the fair trade and its related organizations.

Jennifer Magee of the Lang Center was the key organizer of this event and explains that the inspiration behind this event came from a variety of sources. Magee elaborates, “In my capacity, I have advised a cadre of students interested in engaging in some form of social business as part of their social projects…the inspiration for this event was collaborative and multi-faceted, culminating in a speaking event…on the topic of fair trade: a subject which falls into the category of ‘social business.’”

Indeed, the main focus of Dirks’s lecture was the personal stories of fair trade’s contributions to social and economic development for impoverished individuals and villages, as well as the ‘social business’ ethics in 10,000 Villages.

Dirks began in the lecture about the concept behind fair trade. He expands, “There are an incredibly huge number of people around the world who don’t go to work every day and don’t know when their next meal is. We want to focus on how to give opportunity for work and give people the resources to look after their family.”

Dirks explained that the fair trade movement started in 1946; it has since expanded to formal organizations, such as the World Fair Trade Organization. That organization has over 300 members, 65 participating countries, and sales over $2.6 billion. The Fair Trade Federation is also another crucial organization for just the US and Canada. It consists of over 279 members in USA and Canada and has generated over 150 million dollars in sales for 2007.

Dirks said that member stores that support fair trade do much more than just sell a couple of fair trade items: “Members practice fair trade in everything that they do…it’s not good enough to just have some bags of coffee, you have to committed to the whole product line for fair trade.”

At 10,000 Villages, these high standards mean fair prices, cash advances for their artisans, prompt final payments, and long-term relationships with the artisans. Dirks emphasized the importance of personally knowing the artisans who make the products, their problems, and their needs because only then, one knows what makes a fair price.

Dirks transitioned into his personal experiences traveling over 140 countries, where he “worked with some folks to help them earn a little bit more money, look after family, hope for the future, and give back the community.”

He talks about Budo, a young married woman who lives in Bangladesh. When he first visited her in 1984, she made money from back-breaking work collecting firewood and earned around the equivalent of 25 to 50 cents every week. Dirks and his coworker came up with an idea: if women like Budo in their local village made baskets out of Kaisa grass (a local, wild-grown grass species in nearby land plots), they could take those baskets and sell them back in the United States.

This idea became highly successful, and when Dirks visited Budo for a third time in 1995, Budo had three children, a steady income, and the ability to hope for a better future. She earned enough money to buy a cow (her pension plan), pay for electricity, own three rooms for her house, and pay for the education for her children. Before she earned money in making these baskets, Budo never even thought she would be able to afford for three children’s educations, her pension plan, and many other long-term investments.

Dirks emphasized, “When I think about fair trade, I think about people like Budo and her family…It’s about people, not just stuff. I may have a job and our store does get a profit, but it’s not successful unless people like Budo say it is.”

He ended with a current update on fair trade across the world. According to Dirks, fair trade is constantly growing, and made almost three billion dollars in 2007. But total world trade in 2007 was $13.6 trillion: only one in 5000 trade dollars is in fair trade. “We are a very small movement,” he said, “in a very big world of trade.”

Reviews from attendants were somewhat mixed. Magee said, “I don’t think I’ll ever forget the story of Bodu from Bangledesh….Doug’s story of Bodu clasping her first pay in her hands, waiting for her husband to return home that night, him taking her hands in his, and revealing the largest sum of money either of them had ever seen moved him — and me — to tears.”

Some students, though, were a little hesitant to fully embrace fair trade. Kevin Li ’13 attended the event out of his interest in civic responsibility and explains, “I thought it was very informative and powerful at the same time…All in all, I’d say the lecture was fairly interesting but not life-changing in any way.”

Sean Thackurdeen ’10 was a little more critical. “While there were many happy and emotional success stories,” he said, “no one was asking about the system that fair trade is perpetuating. Quite frankly, I think, to a degree, that fair trade is ensuring the continued export of luxury products from the Global South and preventing ‘real’ development.”

Although he thinks that fair trade’s contributions are helpful, Thackurdeen believes that we should focus on the macro-level where we work on “uplifting whole societies instead of narrowing our focus to the individual and family level.”

Any Swatties interested in pursuing their interests in fair tade, whatever sorts of opinions they may have, Caitlin O’Neil ’10 is launching a social business club at Swarthmore, and 10,000 Villages offers many volunteer opportunities. For more information, contact Jennifer Magee in the Lang Center.

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