As Cal Poly business administration student Grace Burnite entered her first year of school, she knew that she wanted to do something that would have a bigger impact on the world.
"I think that when you're able to use business as a force for good, you can uplift people and the planet and also make a profit," she said. "They don't have to be mutually exclusive."
As part of that quest, she belongs to Net Impact, a socially responsible business club at Cal Poly. Heading up the club's Fair Trade Committee, she spent her fourth year at Cal Poly working to get the city of SLO designated as a Fair Trade Town by Fair Trade U.S.A. Although the COVID-19 pandemic may have dampened the effort to get San Luis Obispo City Council to pass an actual resolution tying the city to certain fair trade goals, Mayor Heidi Harmon issued a fair trade proclamation on May 4 declaring the second Saturday in May as World Fair Trade Day and October as Fair Trade Month.
- Photo Courtesy Of Lynanne Wiest
- INTENTIONAL PRODUCTS HumanKind is a nonprofit retailer in San Luis Obispo selling fair trade certified products such as baskets, jewelry, clothing, and other home goods.
"We're really just using it as a way to create awareness and kind of build momentum off that," Burnite said.
The awareness she's talking about is simply getting consumers to think a little bit more deeply about the products they're buying—where they come from, who made them, and how the raw materials were produced. Behind every fair trade labeled product is a commitment to paying workers livable wages, at a minimum. Those labels ensure that the environment, workers, and community are taken into account throughout the production process.
"I'm passionate about the topic, but I'm also passionate about the community of people it creates," she said. "People who are willing to put the people and planet first and not profit."
In 2018, the Net Impact club worked with Cal Poly on a resolution to become a Fair Trade University, where the school agreed to carry at least two fair trade products in each of the dining halls. That work inspired Burnite to turn her efforts to the city of SLO. She collaborated on a Fair Trade Towns Committee with Net Impact students and community members such as Kasey Main from the SLO Food Co-op, LynAnne Wiest from HumanKind, and Steph Stackhouse from the SLO Yoga Center to get the word out about their campaign and work within the bounds of city government.
They may not have quite reached their starting goal, but Main said the work is just beginning, really. The language in the proclamation, he said, is introductory to what can be done in the future.
"If you look at the consumer reports, people will spend more on fair trade products than on your traditional sourced chocolate or coffee, so it really makes sense for the local economy to adopt that," Main said. "I think the consumers in SLO are really smart, they know where their food is coming from, they what to know where their food is coming from, and they'll want to make that change."
Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution in August 2020, becoming the largest Fair Trade Town in America. As part of that resolution, the city committed to include fair trade principles in city purchasing, to increase citywide understanding of fair trade, and grow the availability of fair trade products among retailers. The campaign took six years, according to Fair Trade LA.
"Los Angeles is a city with a huge purchasing power and international influence. The impact of our fair trade purchases has a ripple effect across nations," Fair Trade LA Executive Director Elisha Chan said in an Instagram post.
Main said that joining the Fair Trade Towns Committee really opened his eyes to the impact that fair trade can have and the variety of products with the label. Buying fair trade certified coffee, chocolate, tea, or other products that the SLO Food Co-op carries may be a little more expensive, he said, but it helps ensure the sustainability of our food systems and the communities that are integral to their production.
"It really promotes the health and well-being for people who we may never meet but who we do have a direct impact on," he said. "I think that 50 cents or a dollar to buy that coffee or chocolate, [consumers] feel better about what they're consuming."
According to a 2014 article, "The Economics of Fair Trade," published in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, studies found that 75 percent of coffee buyers reported they would be willing to pay at least 50 cents extra for a pound of coffee if it was fair trade certified. Another study found that sales were 10 percent higher when coffee was labeled as fair trade, and yet another found that a fair trade label increased candle and towel sales by 10 percent.
"Overall the evidence from these experiments indicates that consumers value production that occurs according to fair trade standards and they believe that certification conveys credible information," the article states.
Wiest, who manages HumanKind, a nonprofit retailer dedicated to selling fair trade products, said that the different fair trade labels out there can be confusing for consumers—and they can mean different things. She said the best way for consumers to find out more about fair trade products is to research the labels on the goods they want to buy and ask questions.
"Fair trade is not just about paying fair wages. It's also about good working conditions, equal opportunities for people who are often marginalized," she said.
Relationships are key, too, Wiest said. Whereas larger corporations focus on their bottom lines, moving their business to where the prices are lowest for both raw materials and manufacturing, fair trade is about long-term trading partnerships with producers and the communities they come from to ensure sustainable jobs for people.
HumanKind mostly works with the Fair Trade Federation, an international organization that tends to certify handcrafted goods and small trade production, from beginning to end. Some labels, such as Fair Trade U.S.A. focus more on commodities such as cotton, chocolate, or coffee, certifying a portion of the supply chain, such as how the raw product for a good was produced. Wiest recently wrote a blog post (at humankind.org) differentiating between fair trade labels for anyone interested in learning more.
She added that the most important thing for a consumer to do is ask about the labels on the goods they want to buy, which can be easier in a small retail store than in a big-box store.
"We want people to think about where their stuff, where their purchases come from and the impact that has on the world and where those purchases come from," Wiest said. "This is just a way to encourage people to ask questions about where their purchases come from and make better purchasing decisions to have a bigger impact." Δ
Reach Editor Camillia Lanham at email@example.com.