Article: Fair Trade on the Home Front

Written by Cafe Campesino on Jul 1, 2005 in Article, NEWSLETTER |
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Several weeks ago we asked the Alternative Economy Interns at Mexico Solidarity Network, whom we featured as our Fair Trade Partner in the March 2005 issue of Fair Grounds, if they would be willing to contribute to this month’s newsletter. Since the program began in January, Café Campesino has been supplying this group, which includes recent high school grads, college students, union members, mothers and others, with our Fair Trade, organic coffee from Chiapas Mexico to present, along with other items produced by Zapatista cooperatives, at their weekly public outreach events throughout the country. From churches to universities, house parties to music shows, and community gatherings to farmers markets, the interns have been speaking face-to-face with US consumers to distribute Fair Trade crafts and coffee as well as to discuss issues of neo-liberalism, Fair Trade, Zapatismo and the concept of an alternative economy.

We thought that a first-hand account of consumers’ reactions and receptivity to the concept of Fair Trade would be a valuable contribution to our outreach efforts as a Fair Trade coffee company. Though broader in scope than we had expected, the interns’ article is illuminating and ultimately conveys a number of important messages, including 1) people in the US – of all backgrounds and opinions – are interested in Fair Trade and are open to learning more about it and 2) consumers are particularly receptive to members of their own communities who advocate Fair Trade and the many related issues. The slogan “think globally, act locally” appears to be validated by the experience of the MSN interns. This is good news and confirms our belief here at Café Campesino that Fair Trade’s practicality as a business model and its philosophical simplicity – doing business by the Golden Rule – create the real possibility that Fair Trade can one day become the norm rather than a market niche. Read on to learn more about what this dynamic group of interns is discovering about consumers and Fair Trade on the home front.

The interns write:

The Fair Trade movement has been making a name for itself over the past several years and we thought it was time to ask, “Has our work been successful?” Earlier this year, our friends at Café Campesino partnered with the Mexico Solidarity Network (MSN) to provide MSN’s Alternative Economy Program (AEP) interns with its Fair Trade, organic coffee from Chiapas Mexico. The AEP supports women’s artisan cooperatives and organic coffee cooperatives in Zapatista communities by opening direct relations with consumers in the US. The crafts are all hand-made and the weavings are done on a backstrap loom, an ancient method of weaving passed down from mother to daughter. Café Campesino supplies the Fair Trade coffee from its producer partner coops at Mut Vitz, Yachil and Maya Vinic, which are operated within the framework of Fair Trade and are representative of Fair Trade’s potential as an alternative business model.

When MSN first put out the call for the new internship program, the organization was swarmed with applications. Early on, it became clear that people in the US are interested in finding ways to show their solidarity with and provide support to the Zapatistas as well as tap into their communities to start talking about the issues surrounding Fair Trade.

We now have 15 AEP interns located throughout the US — from San Francisco to a small island off the coast of Maine. We range from recent high school grads to college students to union members to mothers and beyond, all of whom are setting up tables to distribute the Zapatista Fair Trade crafts and coffee as well as to discuss neo-liberalism, Fair Trade, Zapatismo, and the importance of creating an alternative economy with our respective communities. The AEP interns have made presentations at churches, universities, house parties, music shows, community gatherings, and farmers markets and as you might imagine, we have had a variety of reactions to our messages!

In general, those of us who are living in more progressive communities, often near large universities, have found audiences who are quite aware of and already active in the Fair Trade movement. Other interns who live in more isolated settings and/or who are far from universities, have found less awareness of the concept of Fair Trade. But the difference in awareness varies greatly even within each community. For instance, one intern in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, found that members of the YWCA had a higher awareness of Fair Trade than did a neighboring church group, but noted that people with less awareness of the Fair Trade concept have been quite receptive to supporting it once they viewed a short video made by the women from one of the cooperatives. Other interns have expressed similar findings. While some people may not be as interested initially, their attitudes change once they are exposed to the inspiring stories of the people who are making the crafts and coffee. Questions that often came up in communities in which Fair Trade was new and the Zapatistas were virtually unknown included: “Who are they and where are they located?” Interns commented that once they explained a little bit about the Fair Trade crafts and coffee, people began to ask a lot of questions regarding the story behind them: “Who makes these items? How do they make them? What is their story?”

One of our program’s goals is to place ourselves in these environments and connect with people who haven’t been exposed to Fair Trade. The beautiful crafts and delicious coffee are not only providing the indigenous cooperatives with an economic benefit, but are also providing a great way for us to reach out to people and reconnect producer and consumer, as well as to create a starting point for discussion about Fair Trade and related issues. Something we have noticed is that in those communities with less exposure to Fair Trade, the people are more apt to be open to new ideas when they recognize the person (or the person comes from the same community) who is delivering the message. Because of this, we are working to bring in interns from all walks of life who have varying experiences and who belong to a broad variety of communities. Our own communities are often the best place for us to effectively work for social change.

Those of us who live in more progressive environments are saying similar things about the role of the crafts and coffee. While people may know about Fair Trade, their knowledge of the global economic market is limited. While it may be easier to attract people to the AEP display table in communities such as these, we have found that the real challenge then is to open up the discussion of these issues at a deeper level. Questions that often came up within communities where Fair Trade is already understood focused on the issue of accountability: “Where is the money I give you going? What are the Zapatistas doing with the money? How can I get more involved?”

These people also demonstrated more excitement about having found a way to make a tangible difference. As the intern from the small island off the coast of Maine put it, “People often buy from us to contribute to the cause as well as to have beautiful handmade crafts. It’s an excellent melding of heart, mind and pocketbook!”

We at MSN believe that the AEP has been very successful. It is giving people from across the country tools to speak to their communities about issues surrounding Fair Trade and providing our younger people with experience and opportunities to develop their advocacy skills. It is also giving people an opportunity to learn about and support the Zapatistas, Fair Trade and an alternative economy. It is providing direct economic support to the Zapatistas and their communities while challenging the way people think about their relationship to the people who produce what they consume.

To learn more about the AEP, check out MSN’s website at www.mexicosolidarity.org or call us at (773) 583-7728.

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