Fair trade is a concept that has become part of the mainstream over the past decade in Canada. Manitoba has been a leader in promoting this socially and environmentally responsible producer and consumer concept in the past five years, but the history goes back a generation and across the ocean to Europe.
The Mennonite Central Committee and its Ten Thousand Villages stores recently celebrated a half-century of selling crafts and food products from developing countries. Their store in Brandon has been one of the most successful, relative to local population figures.
The Marquis Project’s Worldly Good store, which closed about a year ago, had been in business since the organization’s staff began bringing back crafts from their project sites back in the 1980s. In some ways, Worldly Goods was a victim of the fact that fair trade goods are now available in "regular" stores.
However, Europe has always been ahead of Canada, the U.S. and Australia in its consumer and official support for fair trade.
One such area is in establishing the criteria for, and "signing up" of fair trade towns. In 1999, a committee of fair trade enthusiasts developed the process and made Garstang, England, the first official fair trade town.
Over the next 10 years, in Great Britain, the number of fair trade towns grew to 400, including London, Edinburgh and Dublin. There are now about 600 fair trade towns around the world, although likely only about 50 in North America.
These communities officially adhere to criteria such as serving and selling fair trade products in stores and restaurants, whose municipal governments and local organizations and faith-based groups also access fair trade products, whose media cover fair trade issues, and who maintain local fair trade committees to promote and educate about these products and standards.
Wolfville, N.S., became Canada’s first fair trade town in 2007, followed by La Peche, Que., just outside Ottawa.
On Canada Day in 2009, Gimli became Canada’s sixth fair trade town and the first in our province. Currently, Brandon is going through the process of deciding if it would like to join these official ranks. A committee has been established, led by the Marquis Project, presentations have been made to the mayor and council, and stores have been canvassed to see what and how many fair trade products they carry.
The idea is not to "boycott" other products, but to encourage fair trade options to be available to those who want them.
Canada overall is about to declare its 17th fair trade town, with Edmonton joining the list later this month.
Toronto, meanwhile, which recently eclipsed Chicago as North America’s third largest city, became a fair trade town when its city council voted on a motion in early May. Other fair trade towns include Olds and Canmore, Alta., Barrie, Ont., and Vancouver.
Why become a fair trade town?
There are obvious ethical implications. It’s very hard to be "against" fair trade, which essentially means that Third World producers will be paid a little bit better, work in safer surroundings, take better care of the environment, have some decision-making power in their workplaces, and avoid child labour.
The world’s largest companies — including all the grocery chains and many of the large coffee shops — are getting on board, wanting to be seen as practising corporate responsibility while also capturing the growing market for fair trade products.
In many cases, the greatest push is coming from youth — from schoolkids as well as university and college students. While they have often played the role of social justice advocates in our society, they are also a large consumer presence who, more than ever before, "vote with their dollars."
For some communities, fair trade status is part of their "sustainability plan" for economic, environmental and social development.
For others, it is a status that might help to stimulate consumerism and tourism.
Parallel to the fair trade town campaign is the FT Campus movement. Colleges and universities across Canada, led by their student councils and by campus student groups such as Engineers Without Borders, are working with their administrations and food services to switch to fair trade options in coffee, tea, sugar, hot chocolate and more.
The University of British Columbia (January 2011) and Simon Fraser University in suburban Vancouver were the first campuses to qualify as officially fair trade, and McGill, Brock, Calgary and others have recently joined. Can Manitoba’s universities and colleges be far behind?
We ask people in our communities to practise good citizenship. Many are now asking their communities to be good global citizens by adopting purchasing policies that include fair trade products.
» Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations active in our province.