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The Fair Trade symposium at Kwantlen

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In good company with panelists Anna Mathewson, Arzo Ansary, and Scott Jacobson

In good company with panelists Anna Mathewson, Arzo Ansary, and Scott Jacobson

I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the Fair Trade symposium last week (Oct 29) at Kwantlen, organised in large part by students. 5425810

I couldn’t catch all of it, but what I saw was inspiring.  Victoria Wakefield explained how she directs all purchasing policies at UBC to be Fair Trade wherever possible, as if it were the most natural thing.  Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer did a marvellous job summarizing the huge task of getting all of the city’s purchases to be green, local, and/or Fair Trade wherever possible – sometimes all three at once.  It sounds simple, but we’re talking about taxpayers money, with the shadow of the Charbonneau (municipal corruption) inquiry looming large.  The city had to devise a plan to coordinate all its procurement, and find a rating system that ranks bids in a way that is fair and transparent.  Andrea told me that, in hindsight, it may have been better to proceed slowly, division by division…but, hell, it’s done now!

Why does it matter?  We got quite an insight into this question thanks to a skyped presentation from Stacey Toews.  Stacey has run Level Ground Trading for over a decade, bringing coffee, tea, dried fruit and other goodies directly from producers, from Africa, Latin America, and India.  The basic idea behind Fair Trade offering a living wage is to skip the middlemen, the brokers that squeeze producers for the lowest possible price.  But Toews isn’t doing charity: the price he offers (and pays upfront) does guarantee a living wage for the producers, but it also ensures continuity of supply and superior, consistent quality.  It’s just a business practice that makes sense for both parties.  The key is to develop trust on both sides.

Stacey has been in the business for quite a while, and his passion was obvious – including when he lambasted the fair Trade organisations for being too bureaucratic, and charging certification costs that are out of reach for some of the smaller producers. 

His talk was followed by Social Conscience’s James Milligan, who markets footballs (soccer balls, if you prefer).  Footballs, as it turns out, are made mostly in a single village in Pakistan.  By buying directly from producers, Milligan is able to pay sufficiently for the villagers to bring in health care and education, and shake the control of the buyers for the big branded companies like Adidas.  I’ll never look at a football the same way anymore.

And me? I was asked to speak to the question of what Fair Trade means to a member of the Kwantlen community.  Why me?  I’m still not sure, but I presume it’s because of my big mouth.

I said, of course, that as a faculty member I support Fair Trade; that as an environmentalist, I originally learned about Fair Trade because of concepts such as bird-friendly coffee or organic bananas, both of which protect nature and migratory birds, but also protect the health of farmers.  Fair Trade is not about organic farming – but there is a lot of overlap, as much of what is sold under Fair Trade also happens to be organic.  So, from an environmental standpoint, add to the benefits of organic production the fact that farmers can make a decent livelihood and so are less likely to damage the environment through poaching or other unsustainable practices.

BXxa-y8CQAAyaKO.jpg_largeI also mentioned that I want to be proud of where I’m working, and of what my employer does in terms of social responsibility.  Especially for a university: we can be a place of vision, inspire our students and teach by example…or become a K-mart of education: cheapest tuition, bland offerings, no vision (and eventually bankrupt).  I’m not at all interested in the latter.  The conference, I hope, will prod Kwantlen into joining UBC, SFU, and McGill into the Fair Trade campus network.

I congratulated the students for organising a great conference (and speaking: damn good talks by Arzo Ansary and Scott Jacobson).   But I deplored two things: these students that spent lots of time organising learned a huge lot, but they won’t get academic credits for their efforts.  And very few students could attend, because they didn’t want to risk missing classes.  Again, a great shame: a learning opportunity lost.  Carpe Diem, we don’t – but hopefully we’ll remedy that.

Moral of the day, though: ask for Fair Trade goods, buy it when you find it.  It’s the only way we’ll ever get to prosperity.  

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