Fair Trade store offers consumers an alternative

What is “Fair Trade”? Few Americans know what it is, and many confuse it with “Free Trade” which is not the same. The owner of an innovative store in Rockton knows because that is the reason for her shop’s existence.

“Fair Trade” is the practice of buying merchandise directly from the people who made it and paying a fair, livable rate of pay. Fair Trade items are not made in sweatshops but are produced by families, artists, villages, employee-owned companies and caring corporations who make sure their employees are paid a wage in accordance with local economies.

Recently, The Rock River Times talked with Julie McKee, owner of Sonrisa, a Fair Trade store at 115 W. Main St. in Rockton. Her business was started Aug. 15, 2003, and she explained her mission to us.

TRRT: How did you come up with the idea?

McKee: I had been shopping at a Fair Trade store [SERRV International] in Madison, Wis., for a few years and had become aware of how typical retail stores are very—how do I say this? Most of the retail stores buy merchandise from overseas companies that don’t pay livable wages or have closed down their American operations and sent all their jobs overseas. As I shopped at the Fair Trade store in Wisconsin, I began to learn about how the mission of Fair Trade is ensuring a fair and livable wage.

About the same time, my daughter was doing some human service work in South America and was writing home about the exploitation of the people in her village while the people they worked for were extremely wealthy. She was living in the Amazon jungle. Her village was called Guayaramarin, in Bolivia. It was about five hours by airplane from the nearest town. When you were born in that village, you had no options of going anywhere. No one had cars, and you basically had no chance to support yourself. There was work in the local Brazil nut plantation, but the problem was, the owner of the plantation, who was also the mayor of the town, would pay the workers about half a penny for every Brazil nut that they could crack open if they didn’t break the nut. So as a result, he could sell all the nuts and become very wealthy, but the people were basically slaves. They were stuck hundreds of miles in the jungle with no way to get out.

She wrote home to me and said, “Isn’t there something we can do?” About that time, everything came together for me. I knew about this Fair Trade federation, and I’m willing to put my money and my heart on the line to make a difference. I have completely financed it myself, and it’s a not-for-profit organization.

TRRT: What types of merchandise do you offer?

McKee: Most of what we offer are gift items, clothing, and some food items. We have jewelry. We have furniture. We can offer just about anything. We have been getting our merchandise from three sources—missionary groups and human service groups like SERRV International… We can get carpeting guaranteed that no child labor has been used because the vast majority of carpets [sold by most retailers] have been made by children in carpet factories. You may pay $2,000 for an Oriental rug and never know it was made by a 7-year-old child who had no choice. The carpet that we carry is guaranteed that is not the case. There is a watchdog organization that oversees it.

TRRT: From what countries do you obtain merchandise?

McKee: In Africa—Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania. Also Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Argentina, Guatemala. And we are very proud of the fact that most of the food items we are bringing in are from local family-owned farms, and buying within a 50-mile radius of Rockford because we are very committed to supporting our local economy. A lot of people think Fair Trade is simply imports. That’s not a fact at all. Fair Trade preserves American jobs. The jeans we carry are made by an employee-owned company in Texas. We will not carry Diamond Cut jeans, Levi Strauss, Wrangler or Carhart, for example, because of the fact that those companies have closed down most of their U.S. operations and shipped their jobs to developing nations, where they can pay poor wages, but we saw no reflection in the prices of their jeans. But what we do see are thousands of Americans who have lost their jobs. Fair Trade will not carry the merchandise of companies that do that. We are buying directly from families that really need it.

We carry a range of jackets that are very durable and made in Nepal. The prices range from about $40 to $80, very competitively priced. Some of them have intense embroidery, and they are beautiful. When people buy these, not only are they supporting employees in Nepal who make them, but it’s also a family in Janesville who have invested their money to carry this company. So they are also supporting the local economy.

TRRT: Do you have a catalog that people can order from?

McKee: Not at present, but you can order items from our Web site: www.sonrisastore.com.

Note: The phone number of Sonrisa is (815) 624-6615.

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