Feature photo provided by MayaWorks

Five years in the making, Chicago will soon become the largest Fair Trade city in the U.S. This means that Chicago consumers will have access to purchase Fair Trade products made in Latin America and other countries. The group behind this movement is Chicago Fair Trade, a non-profit organization with representatives from businesses, non-profit organizations, faith-based organizations, educational institutions, and individuals on a mission to create awareness to eliminate poverty and to empower workers in Latin America and throughout the world by encouraging consumers to purchase Fair Trade products.

What is Fair Trade? A local person said, “Oh yeah! I’ve heard of it- the U.S. has “Free Trade” agreements with many countries like Mexico with NAFTA and Central America with CAFTA.” Wrong! In the world of free spirit, there are many definitions of Fair Trade. This is the “Fair Trade” definition being used by Chicago Fair Trade: Fair trade is a market-based economic system through which workers, artisans and farmers are paid a living wage for their work and environmentally sustainable practices are used. My simple translation: Fair Trade guarantees fair living wages for workers, prohibits child labor, eliminates unnecessary middlemen, invests in social projects, and promotes eco-friendly mechanisms. Here is a breakdown:

Fair wage: Workers, artisans, and farmers receive a fair wage so they can send their children to school and provide meals to their families.

Fair labor conditions: Employees are guaranteed an environment, which is safe, free of harassment and prohibits child labor.

Fair trade: Workers have the opportunity and access to sell directly to buyers and eliminate the traditional and exhausted free market “supply chain command” of intermediaries.

Community impact: Workers have the opportunity to build centers, schools, clinics, and recreational parks in their communities with the premium earned from selling their products.

Eco-friendly: Prohibits the use of chemical additives that harm the bio-diversity, protecting forests, trees, wildlife, and water systems.

Not a bad economic trade system that encourages respect, eh? A consumer purchases an item with the acknowledgment that a child did not make it; an adult who received a fair living wage working in a healthy environment crafted it. Nevertheless, many Chicagoans are not aware of Fair Trade products made in Latin America.

The history of Fair Trade can be traced back to the 1940’s after World War II. Church groups in Puerto Rico and Europe purchased handcrafted items from artisans with the goal to eradicate poverty. In the 1980s, Dutch group Max Havelaar began certifying coffee as a Fair Trade item. During the 70s and 80s, U.S. groups such as Ten Thousand Villages and Equal Exchange began importing Fair Trade items.(FairTradeResource.org) Since then, many local and international Fair Trade organizations from have been promoting and selling Fair Trade products. In 2006, Chicago Fair Trade was created to increase support for Fair Trade in Chicago through education and advocacy.

There are hundreds of fair trade cooperatives in Mexico, Central America, and South America. In Chicago, many Fair Trade businesses are partnering with these cooperatives to eradicate poverty in Latin America. Here are a few Chicago Fair Trade members’ explanations of how Fair Trade practices benefit their partners in Latin America.

Jennifer Moran, CEO of Greenola Fair Trade, Sustainable Style says, “Fair Trade has benefited our artisans in Bolivia significantly. In the last year, we have grown our producer base by three additional women. With their earnings, one of our cooperatives was able to attend a Fashion Design Class at the local university. Greenola also provides access to medical care for all artisans and their children. With Greenola, we are able to provide women entrepreneurial opportunities that would not be available without Fair Trade Enterprise. They bring their children to work and have the option to work from their homes.”

Photo provided by Greenheart Shop

Katherine Bissel, Shop Manager at Greenheart Shop sells Fair Trade products from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Dominican Republic, and many more countries. Katherine says, “Fair trade artisans benefit in many ways. They receive a fair wage for their work. Most fair trade artisans are women (~80%)–many heads of their households. They have a voice in the workplace. One of the tenets of fair trade is democracy in the workplace. The artisans help support their communities. In fair trade, artisans earn a social premium; this premium is invested back into the artisans’ community to support development. Artisans choose how to use the funds; examples include health clinics, childcare facilities, scholarship funds, and much more.”

Kate Robertson, CEO of Mayu says, “Fair Trade principles have been beneficial to Mayu’s artisans in Peru because they have empowered the women to make business decisions. The knitters have received various small business training that has allowed them to create a sustainable enterprise. Mayu’s artisans have decided the monetary compensation that they feel best represents the skills, hard-work and time that they invest into knitting our one-of-a-kind alpaca accessories. The additional income they have received through working for Mayu has helped them to better provide for themselves and their families in the forms of healthier food, additional school supplies, higher education, and better health care.”

Start shopping today! Additional fantastic Fair Trade organizations that are making a positive impact with their partners in Latin America include Mayaworks, Five Accessories, Ten Thousand Villages, Maya Essence, and Cuentos Foundation.

You may be asking how buying Fair Trade products benefits the City of Chicago and local Latinos? Eventually, when Chicago is declared a Fair Trade city, it will send the message to Chicagoans, other American cities, and to the world that Chicago is committed to seeking global relationships and promoting respect for craftsmen and women throughout the world. In order to be declared a Fair Trade city, Chicago Fair Trade created five goals that must be met.

1. A resolution must be passed by the Chicago City Council supporting fair trade and encouraging procurement of Fair Trade products by city agencies.

2. Fair Trade products will be available throughout the city, at least 1 outlet in each of the 76 Chicago Community areas. Also, based on our population of about 3 million, we want 1 outlet per 10,000 people, that is 300 outlets within the City.

3. Fair Trade products will be used in institutions such as congregations, schools, universities, hospitals, and workplaces, with at least 1 Fair Trade institution in each of Chicago’s 76 Community Areas.

4. This Campaign will bring increased media attention to Fair Trade and broaden support for World Fair Trade Day by the City.

5. Chicago Fair Trade is a coalition of businesses, faith organizations, universities, non-profits, and individuals who will continue to steer the process. CFT will establish partnership with elected officials and the City Department of Environment.

This status will connect Chicago neighborhoods of Latin descent to international neighborhoods, thus giving Chicagoans the opportunity to purchase items made in their homelands. Chicago is becoming a recognizable leader in living sustainably; having fair trade products accessible in the city will promote sustainability in international communities. Fair Trade city status will attract fair trade businesses from other U.S. cities and from throughout the world to operate in Chicago, thus creating jobs locally by thinking globally.

If here in the U.S., we have the right to live with respect and dignity, then others deserve the same treatment independent upon which country they call home.

Think local, act global—buy fair trade!

Ervin Lopez is a board member of ChicagoFairTrade.org. Check out our podcast with Ervin!

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