To a student, “fair trade” may mean glancing at another garbled label on a chocolate bar. But to Naseem Ji, it means sustaining his village’s livelihood.
In Old Delhi, India, there are more people than jobs. Ji, a local, knew this all too well. He watched his neighborhood struggle to make ends meet. In an effort to create more jobs for his community, he created his jewelry business, Ana Art Group.
Success for Ji did not come easily. Promises of pay from middlemen who exported his products were unfulfilled. Ji was left with a surplus of supply and no one to pay him and his team for their work.
Ji’s daughter Sana, who helped her father with the business, saw the effect this had on their community. Through research, she learned about fair trade practices. She emailed American fair trade business Matr Boomie, a distributor for HumanKind Fair Trade in downtown San Luis Obispo. Upon receiving the email, Matr Boomie began purchasing Ana Art Group’s products at a fair price to sell at other stores like HumanKind across America.
“She was a teenager! She took the initiative to help her father and her family business,” LynAnne Wiest, store manager of HumanKind, said. “This was a family trying their best to get by and they just needed a fair company to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to treat you with respect here.’”
Stories like these have inspired a growth in fair trade businesses and certification programs nationwide. Recently, this advocacy has made its way to campus through the Fair Trade Project, a club initiative to get Cal Poly certified as a Fair Trade Campus.
Net Impact Cal Poly is the university chapter of a nationwide organization aiming to bring sustainable models to businesses. In Spring 2017, Net Impact launched their Fair Trade Project, a campaign in partnership with Fair Trade USA.
What is “fair trade” and what does it mean for your wallet?
The term “fair trade” speaks for itself in many ways.
“’Fair trade’ is a certification or label that tells a consumer that nobody involved, and none of the environment, was harmed unnecessarily in the production process,” club member Elise McCutchen said.
Fair trade certifications require safe and healthy working conditions, fair wages and strict adherence to environmental codes.
Net Impact aims to educate students on their impact as consumers, according to business administration sophomore McCutchen.
“When you buy a shirt, you’re not just buying a shirt,” McCutchen said. “Maybe it cost you $5, but it might’ve cost someone’s life.”
McCutcheon was referring to the unsafe working conditions that have killed many factory workers overseas — notably, a 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers that sparked a growing conversation surrounding fair trade.
“That was completely preventable,” McCutchen said. “We cover these things up because we are comfortable with our consumer society. It’s nobody’s fault until you realize we buy into it. By doing nothing, we’re adding to it.”
However, it is more than simply one standout catastrophe that has prompted advocacy for fair trade practices. Typical exporting practices leave workers in developing countries without living wages.
HumanKind Fair Trade is a nonprofit organization in San Luis Obispo that works with businesses and artisans to sell fair trade products from all over the world. HumanKind Assistant Manager Tim Kelly said the store provides those deserved wages to their vendors with the goal of helping them develop their own careers.
“Eventually, we want them to start their own company,” Kelly said. “We want the artists to be able to learn their craft, perfect it, learn how to run their business, and come up with new plans to spread out and sustain their own community.”
Common arguments against buying fair trade products often boil down to the higher price tag. However, according to Kelly, you get what you pay for. The extra cost speaks to the quality of the item when compared to mass-produced products from factories.
“If you’re comparing [fair trade products] to other quality products, they’re not any more expensive,” Kelly said. “If you’re comparing it to the cheapest thing out there, then yes, anything that’s handmade is going to be more expensive.”
Becoming a Fair Trade campus
Net Impact must meet Fair Trade USA’s requirements to become a Fair Trade Campus. One requirement is to work with Campus Dining to offer at least two fair trade products in each dining venue. McCutchen said most of Cal Poly’s venues do not offer any fair trade-certified products.
It has been a tedious process trying to find people in Campus Dining who can actually implement these changes, according to McCutchen.
Cal Poly Corporation Communications Specialist Aaron Lambert said Campus Dining has been searching for a new sustainability coordinator since Jan. 19 who would be responsible for implementing fair trade practices. Without a sustainability coordinator, little progress can be made. Lambert said Campus Dining plans to address sustainability issues once the position is filled.
In addition, pre-existing contracts with suppliers who do not supply fair trade products can hinder the process, according to McCutchen.
“Coming from a business major perspective, I know it’s not an easy thing,” McCutchen said. “It’s a long process. The first step is education and giving people a few options.”
Another requirement to become a Fair Trade Campus is educational outreach. During finals week of Spring 2017, the club launched the campaign by holding an educational booth in front of Robert E. Kennedy Library. They served fair trade chocolates and talked to students about the issue.
“It was really surprising — so many people came up to the booth and had no idea what fair trade was,” McCutchen said.
While giving students fair trade options helps, McCutchen said the campaign would have the greatest ripple effect with a strong emphasis on education.
“Everyone who goes to Cal Poly now is going to go off and get amazing jobs and have purchasing power in the future,” McCutchen said. “Being a consumer that buys fair trade and takes that into account when they go to the store is way more powerful than us getting two products in campus dining.”
Kelly agreed. When he visited Net Impact at their weekly meeting Jan. 25, he stressed their role as educators.
“I said to them, ‘Hey, look. You probably think of yourselves as students. You’ve been a student your whole lives. But really, you’re teachers. Only about 7 percent of the world’s population are college educated; you guys really are the most educated people in the world. You are here with the knowledge that needs to go out into the world,’” Kelly said.
A global impact
Back in Old Delhi, Ana Art Group continues to provide jobs to the community. Thanks to the income from fair trade businesses, Sana was the first young woman in her village to attend college, where she studies business.
In San Luis Obispo, Ana Art Group’s jewelry pieces are just a few of the many products on HumanKind’s shelves that support artisans globally. Humankind manager Wiest’s visit to India, where she met Sana and Naseem for the first time, was a reminder that behind every product HumanKind sells is a real person they are able to support — as Kelly calls it, “a gift that gives twice.”
“It’s not charity,” Wiest said. “It’s not just giving someone food. It’s giving them dignity. It’s giving them work. It’s supporting such an amazing movement that’s supporting people and helping them support themselves.”