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Sweet Taste of Justice: Fair-trade Commerce Supports Decent Wages, Safe Work Conditions

By Beth Griffin

MARYKNOLL, N.Y. (CNS) – Fair-trade chocolate tastes better than its commercially produced counterparts,“because you can’t taste the blood of the worker,” Cara Weidinger said.

She was quoting a colleague in the Students for Global Justice organization at St. John’s University, Jamaica.

Weidinger, a senior, is president of the group that encourages the campus community to recognize the humanity of small farmers and artisans by buying food and clothing produced by people who are paid a just wage for work performed under safe conditions.

The students at the Vincentianrun school are part of a growing movement in the Catholic Church to link social justice to consumer spending through so-called fair-trade initiatives.

According to Equal Exchange, fair trade is a set of business practices voluntarily adopted by producers and buyers of agricultural commodities and handmade crafts that are designed to advance many economic, social and environmental goals.

Equal Exchange is a worker cooperative based in West Bridgewater, Mass., that sells food and beverages produced by small farmer cooperatives in 20 countries. It works with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Maryknoll and other groups to distribute the products in the U.S.

Courtney Lare said CRS works with 15 partners to provide fair-trade items to sell to Catholic groups. Since 2005, such groups have purchased more than $21 million worth of coffee, chocolate and handcrafted items from CRS. Lare is the CRS fair-trade program officer.

Adherents of fair trade commit to pay a fair wage to the producer and offer opportunities for advancement, use environmentally sustainable practices and safe working conditions, build long-term trade relationships and offer public accountability.

“The whole point of fair trade is to give people better lives,” Aurette DeCuffa told Catholic News Service. She is the manager of the Maryknoll Gift Shop at Maryknoll headquarters.

“It’s consistent with our mission,” she said. The shop sells handcrafted items from countries where Maryknoll missioners serve, as well as fair-trade coffee, tea and snack bars.

Fair-trade chocolate bars, for example, cost more than commercially produced bars, but they sell well to people who understand the situation, DeCuffa said.

“Some of the large producers use illegal child labor in West Africa. Workers labor in hazardous condition, they’re not fairly paid and they struggle to survive.”

Chocolate she buys from Equal Exchange is a better quality product made by people who are fairly paid, she said. “We’re always interested in doing what’s right.”

DeCuffa, a 25-year retail veteran of Macy’s, said she engages customers in conversation about the origins of the products she sells. “People understand and they know what they’re getting,” she said.

The nominally higher price “forced me to eat less chocolate,” she said. “When you pay more, you have to make it last!”

Weidinger said fair trade is a palpable expression of social justice principles for students.

“A lot of social justice seems so hard and the changes needed so big,” she said, but fair trade makes it accessible as an easy, local shopping choice. You don’t have to buy from a small website, pay a fortune and hassle with high shipping costs, she said. It’s available and not obscure. You look for the fair-trade certification label, she said.

At St. John’s, fair-trade coffee is sold in the student cafeteria, lounge and library, but Weidinger said her group can’t take credit for that.

“A lot has to do with our Vincentian heritage. Social justice has been part of the heritage since before social justice was cool,” she said.

The Students for Global Justice choose to buy Equal Exchange coffee, tea and chocolate through CRS, where they are members of the Fair Trade Ambassadors program. The program combines training and advocacy for recruits selected through a competitive process.

Weidinger said the students work through campus ministry to emphasize fair trade and also give products away at campus awareness events. She said passion for the cause spreads by encounter with other students. “How many times does a person have to gnaw on a small piece of chocolate show it’s worth it?” she asks.

“When you choose fair trade, you’re choosing the farmer, not a corporation,” Weidinger said.

John Flynn directs the fair-trade coffee ministry at Holy Name of Mary Church in Croton-on-Hudson. Since 2004, Flynn and his wife, Mary, have worked with a small group of volunteers to sell coffee, tea, chocolate, nuts and dried fruit after Masses one weekend each month. He said they are one of Equal Exchange’s largest parish customers.

Flynn said the program began as a six-month trial project and has raised almost $50,000 for Equal Exchange partners. Products are sold without any markup. Holy Name sells a 10-ounce bag of organic Colombian coffee for $7, he said.

“Our goal has been raising the consciousness of fellow parishioners on social justice and respect life issues. Fair trade helps us look at small farmers as partners.

“We wouldn’t be able to share a fine cup of coffee with friends without these workers,” Flynn said.

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