Left Justified: Fair trade is better than free trade

JustGoods fair trade marketplace opens Sept. 1

We’ve all heard how wonderful “free” trade is. You can buy shirts and pants for 10 bucks. The fact that underage girls chained to sewing machines make the clothes in a sweatshop is not a concern. Most people do not know where they get the stuff they buy.

“Free” trade means businesses freely do business with governments and other businesses around the world with little qualms of worker rights. Nor are the businesses concerned about the environmental effects of their activities. The treatment of people who make our goods is of little concern to the businesses that import into our country. Free trade is different from fair trade.

Fair trade treats the worker fairly. The concept of fair trade started when Peace Corps workers, missionaries and other do-gooders visited developing countries and found local arts and crafts to bring home for friends and relatives. Soon, small trading companies developed to deal directly with the producers in many of these poorer countries. The movement grew to trade fairly.

Suggestions for a fair trade certification process developed into an international fair trade federation. Wholesalers, retailers and producers made a commitment to provide fair wages and good employment opportunities to economically disadvantaged artisans and farmers worldwide. The focus is on the worker who makes the goods. The fair trade federation links low-income producers with consumers directly (you can check their Web site at www.fairtradefederation.com).

One of the best-known fair trade wholesalers is Ten Thousand Villages. Started by Mennonite missionaries after World War II, they use volunteers, so the goods are kept affordable. Most of the items are sold through church bazaars and nonprofit organizations (like Rockford Urban Ministries, for whom I work). Only recently have fair trade stores opened. There are stores in Evanston, Madison, Milwaukee, Bloomington, Des Moines, and now Rockford.

JustGoods will open Sept. 1, at 201 Seventh St. Offering only fair trade-certified goods, the store will have an eclectic collection of gift items, clothing and the best coffee in town. Fair-trade coffee leads the consumer conscience movement. JustGoods board members and volunteers come from local churches, schools and peace organizations and hope to bring justice to the poor, pay fair wages to artisans, and increase market share for fair-traded handicrafts that reflect rich cultural traditions and environmental sensitivity.

This is consumerism with a conscience. As shoppers, we can vote with our dollars, and in most elections, an educated voter makes a better system. People rarely have a choice in most elections, but soon Rockford will have an alternative shopping experience, one in which you can purchase an item and trace it back to the producer who made it, and see that they were well treated.

And the drug counseling center that was to occupy the southernmost storefront in the building? Moved down the street six blocks. The Total Health Awareness Team has set up shop in a former tattoo parlor (and before that a skuzzy gas station) at 824 Seventh St. The move was expensive, so any support to halt the spread of disease would be gratefully accepted.

If there’s one thing I have learned, it’s don’t fight city hall. We will have a formal ribbon cutting ceremony after we work out all the kinks in running a storefront in Rockford.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!