Hello, readers! Welcome to this week’s installation of the social and economic exploration that I’ve titled “Fair Trade Features.” Today, we have the chance to learn from a true expert. I interviewed Katherine Bissell Cordova, executive director of Chicago Fair Trade, the largest fair trade coalition in the U.S. Throughout this series, we’ve been learning what it means for something to be fair trade. Together, I believe we have gathered a good understanding of the practical definition of the term. But wanting a real “insider’s perspective” on the heart of the fair trade movement, I started our interview by asking Katherine how she would explain the term to someone who had never encountered it before.
When it comes to making purchases, Katherine told me, no matter what kinds of items you’re in the market for, she always says, “Fair trade is all about asking the right questions! The big three that we focus on at Chicago Fair Trade are: Where was it made? Were the workers paid fairly? Was the environment affected in sustainable ways? Questions like these are the foundation for what we believe defines something as fair trade.”
Behind those three questions is the underlying mission of Chicago Fair Trade: to alleviate poverty. And we all know that poverty is something that Chicago is all too familiar with. That, in itself, is a reason to pay attention to the work CFT is doing in our community. I decided to ask Katherine if she had anything else to add. “Why is it important to participate in fair trade, specifically for our readers here in Chicagoland?”
“Well… Aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do?” She chuckled. “Economically it just makes sense. For example, coffee. If the process doesn’t adhere to fair trade conditions, you run the risk of it going away as a commodity. If farmers aren’t compensated, the labor stops. Environmentally, land that isn’t cared for is going to stop producing. A source simply cannot keep up with the demand if all we do is take without giving something back.” She went on to describe a few of the social or person-centered negative effects of a non-fair trade market. Over the past few years, there has been a 400% increase in clothing consumption in the US. This huge jump can be credited to a recent rise in something called “fast fashion,” which is basically any clothing or accessories being sold at a falsely cheap price. Katherine emphasized yet again the importance of asking questions. “How is it possible to sell this for so little?” More likely than not, it is because the person who created the piece was paid an incredibly low wage for their labor, or because the brand sourced its materials from a factory using similar methods. “Buying fast fashion, basically makes you complicit in some really unsavory stuff, child labor being just one of them,” she concluded. I nodded slowly, forgetting that she couldn’t see me through the phone. Unfortunately, it made a lot of sense. I will definitely think twice before making another purchase at many my go-to stores, which I tend to gravitate towards because they’re so cheap.
Clearly, being committed to fair trade is a worthy cause—one that I really want to be a part of! In the hope that you all feel the same way, I asked Katherine for some ways that we can get involved with Chicago Fair Trade aside from financial donations. I didn’t have to see her face to know that Katherine instantly lit up, excitedly reciting her list. “CFT has an advocacy committee, which always needs support,” she told me. “You can become a member and help us spread the word! Or, send us an email about coming and educating your community.” If you’re interested in bringing the fair trade mission into your school, church, or another institution you’re involved in, don’t hesitate to ask! The staff will work with you to brainstorm campaigns and resources to most effectively spread awareness within your desired audience. Chicago Fair Trade has their own line of coffee, too, if you’re looking for a fundraiser—buy it for yourself, or use it as a fundraiser! Either way, it’s caffeinated and delicious.
CFT also hosts a few events of their own. Each May, they organize and host a World Fair Trade Day celebration—the largest in the United States—and a month-long Christmas pop-up shop every December, both featuring a variety of goods from social enterprises based here in Chicago. These events are open to the public, and are a great way to explore the local fair trade products to which we have unique access!
And, because attending these events in person isn’t always possible, Chicago Fair Trade has also made a list of all those same businesses available on their website, complete with links to each of those business’s online stores. I’ve included a link to this web page below, along with a link to shop CFT coffee. Thanks so much to Katherine for giving us a glimpse into the ways that Chicago Fair Trade is working to make the fair trade lifestyle more accessible to those of us in the Chicago community.
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