A Milwaukee store channels the fun of shopping and lure of artisan goods into a tool for economic development and social justice.
By: Rachel Kohn
West of the bustle of downtown Milwaukee, about a mile north of the winding Menomonee River, is a red brick building on the main drag of West Vliet Street, home to a store whose specialness is belied by its commonplace surroundings.
Maybe such is the way of all magical things — relics and portals to landscapes and people far away. At Four Corners of the World, visitors are immersed in goods from around the globe. Beautiful scarves and trendy tote bags handmade by women in Cambodia. Musical instruments from Cameroon to Bangladesh. Jewelry from Ecuador, coffee from Guatemala, wind chimes from Indonesia, chocolate from Ghana, the list goes on and on. More significant than the breadth of its offerings, however, is one quality they all share: they are all certified fair trade products.
The Southeastern Wisconsin Initiative for Fair Trade, or SWIFT, is a non-profit board in Milwaukee whose goal is to educate the city about fair trade. “They figured the best way to do that would be to open the store,” says store manager Clara Tracey, 24, and in 2006 they set up shop on West Vliet.
“In the past couple of years with [growing] awareness of sustainability and buying local and living organically, it’s kind of like fair trade is the next step,” says Tracey. “We want people to think about fair trade when they are buying presents or buying something for themselves, and there aren’t really many places to do that because it’s just so easy to go to Target and buy something that was mass-produced by people who you aren’t sure how well they were treated. We want to be another option.”
According to the principles of fair trade espoused by the Fair Trade Federation, of which Four Corners is a member, fair trade is about rejecting the prevalent paradigm of exploitation and entrenchment of existing inequalities among producers of the global economy’s raw materials and mass produced goods. Instead, fair trade organizations foster opportunities for local economic and social development among marginalized populations. Standards for wages, hours, and working conditions of producers must be met for goods to receive fair trade certification, for example. Demanding inclusion of craftsmen and farmers in the decision-making processes that affect them, fair trade is not intended to be a crutch or a charity program but a vehicle for empowerment and capacity building.
Take the vibrant and versatile scarves from Cambodia as an example. The women who make them belong to a group called VillageWorks. With access to VillageWorks training centers in their village district of Baray, these female artisans have an opportunity to excel at a traditional craft that can be parlayed into a commodity in the international marketplace.
Transparency is also key to the fair trade model, with goods going from producers to sellers through the least number of intermediaries possible and auditable trade standards ensuring that a fair amount is going to, and getting to, the producers. Four Corners, for example, gets its products primarily from small wholesalers who work directly with artisan groups (like VillageWorks) and cooperatives in other countries. One hundred percent of the products at Four Corners are from certified fair trade producers, surpassing the Fair Trade Federation’s minimum requirement of 85 percent.
In keeping with the SWIFT’s vision of the store as a community resource, it features a free video and DVD library and hosts viewings and discussion groups on fair trade and sustainable development with complimentary refreshments. Tracey also heads out with seasonal workers and interns for offsite sales at summer festivals and church fairs.
SWIFT runs the store as a non-profit; other than paying the manager (the only full time employee), a few seasonal workers and bills, all of the profits go into acquiring more products and hosting educational events. But how much of an impact does one small business have on the big picture?
“There is no doubt that their financial and social impact to the producers and their communities is significant,” says Billy Linstead Goldsmith, National Coordinator at Fair Trade Towns USA. “A small increase in income in communities of extreme poverty can be the difference between children going to school versus working, getting clean, potable water for the community, or even getting sick community members to clinics or hospitals.” Additionally, a “community development premium” is included when pricing finished goods, with that cut of the money dedicated to community development projects democratically chosen by the farmer and workers. “That is traceable and measureable,” he says.
Although more difficult to measure, there is also a positive impact on the consumer end as well.
“By participating in a network like one of our Fair Trade Town campaigns, or the Southwestern Wisconsin Initiative for Fair Trade, [fair trade stores] have an opportunity to both build and market their business and to also cultivate a community of conscious consumers ““ and ultimately, that is the biggest difference that we all need to make ““ more conscious consumer demands more conscious companies, which leads to more conscious trade.”
A native Michigander, Rachel Kohn is completing her Masters in International Media at American University. Before moving to the DC area, she ran her own small business as a public relations consultant and freelance writer in Jerusalem, Israel. She graduated from Brandeis University in 2007 with Bachelors degrees in Political Science and Environmental Studies, two of her passions. While attending a religious studies program in the West Bank town of Elkana from 2002-2003, she volunteered as a foreign correspondent for her hometown paper, reporting on the Second Intifada and life in the shadow of the U.S.-Iraq War. Rachel thinks that knowledge through contact is the key to understanding and coexistence. She also tends to dance in her chair if music is playing.
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