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Fair Trade: Beyond Dollars and Cents

By Joe Weber

Dayton, Ohio, is known for its groundbreaking inventions. I'm reminded of this on my daily commute, as I live near the childhood home of Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Shoppers browse an assortment of fair trade goods

Shoppers browse an assortment of fair trade goods at the annual Dayton International Artisan Market. Photo by Jacqueline DeCarlo/CRS

Around a table in the Bergamo retreat center, I was reminded of the town's creative vision once again. A handful of volunteers were planning the annual Dayton International Artisan Market.

For the past five years, this group has transformed four large rooms at the retreat center into a bustling marketplace filled with fair trade delicacies and crafts.

Roving shoppers sip samples of coffee grown by farmers around the world. Displays of jams, dried soups and olive oil overrun tables. Colorful handcrafts draw curious salegoers looking for functional novelties. Handwoven baskets, jewelry and wind chimes are among the offerings.

The Dayton market is one of the nation's largest Work of Human Hands sales, doing as much as $35,000 in business in just seven hours. But the event can't be measured in dollars and cents.

"It's more than just a sale. We really wanted to build a sense of global community," says Cheryl Griffin, one of the event's coordinators.

Homegrown Solidarity

It takes about 70 hard-working volunteers to make the sale happen. When the day is done and the last volunteer goes home, the community feels changed. Everyone who participated has become one step closer to solidarity, not just globally, but locally as well.

CRS Fair Trade sale

In the 14 years since CRS started promoting fair trade, we have helped our partners sell millions of dollars of goods that benefit artisans and growers overseas. Photo by Jim Stipe/CRS

The fair trade concept encourages shoppers to look at the goods they buy, and think of the human hands that made them. All too often, farmers and artisans in the developing world aren't adequately compensated for the goods they produce, which often supply the consumer market in the United States and elsewhere. They receive a meager profit for their labor or the produce they grow. When economic conditions get bad enough, they may decide to migrate, which in turn often means they must withdraw their children from school and face a new set of hardships.

Throughout the United States, parishes and other Catholic groups and individuals committed to fair trade work with Catholic Relief Services to give consumers an alternative way to shop, one which helps re-establish a right relationship between producer and consumer.

"These types of fair trade sales create demand for production, which builds the marketplace for artisans and increases cultural appreciation as these unique products come into our lives," says Jacqueline DeCarlo, a senior fair trade program advisor for CRS. "Besides the beautiful connection to the women who made the product, consumers have a sense of creating change as they use their consumer power."

In the 14 years since the agency started promoting fair trade initiatives, we have helped our partners sell millions of dollars of goods that benefit producers overseas. In 2008, for example, the program helped sell more than $2 million worth of crafts, coffee and chocolate.

Not Sitting on the Sidelines

In Dayton, a small group of parishioners from St. Albert's church started the sale at Bergamo five years ago after completing JustFaith—a 30-week course sponsored by CRS and other Catholic groups. The course examines how justice is a part of faith. After taking the course, "you just have to do something," says Cheryl.

Dayton International Artisan Market

The Dayton International Artisan Market features fair trade crafts from around the world. Photo by Jacqueline DeCarlo/CRS

Central to Catholic social teaching and to the work of CRS is the promise that "solidarity will transform the world." We say this with the hope that our practice of solidarity will make life better for our brothers and sisters around the world. Fair trade does just that, by ensuring a better market value for their goods. We've already seen proof of this in the transformed lives of coffee growers in southern Mexico and cocoa growers in Ghana.

But solidarity works at home, too.

At the sale, volunteers visit with friends they only get to see one time each year. Husbands and wives, mothers and teenage daughters, volunteer together. Newcomers to the sale were excited to catch a glimpse of how their everyday buying choices impact the lives of people worlds away—who pour in time and labor to make these products.

"What was exciting was that it is another way to do business. It's personal, mutually satisfying—not just in an economic sense but in a spiritual sense," says Sister Rose Martin Morand, another coordinator.

By following through on a vision, a small group of volunteers transformed a room and a community. In that process, they themselves were transformed. Cheryl recalls one volunteer saying, "This has made my Advent."

Joe Weber served as a CRS volunteer in Zambia and has spent the last nine months as a volunteer with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio. He was recently chosen for a CRS fellowship in the Dominican Republic.

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