April 22, 2007
By LIZA FEATHERSTONE
WHEN Kazi Hossain, a real estate broker in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, telephoned a client recently to describe a house for sale, he played up one of the property’s most desirable attributes. “One block from Vox Pop!” he exclaimed. “You know Vox Pop?”
It seems like everyone in that newly gentrifying neighborhood knows Vox Pop, a cafe and bookstore that, by day, draws young families and office job escapees. But perhaps more important than the knitting classes and band performances that establish the business as a kind of community center is its coffee, proudly described on well-placed signs and on the menu as “fair trade” brews.
“The fact that the coffee is fair trade is certainly more sustainable for the farmers, and having this coffeehouse also helps sustain our community,” said Willow Fodor, 29, a customer who said she moved to Ditmas Park because of the cafe. “I just loved the vibe.”
Fair trade, like more familiar labels such as organic, cruelty-free and sustainable, is another in a series of ethical claims to appear on products — a kind of hipster seal of approval. The fair trade ethic is spreading eastward from the West Coast, where it has been promoted by well-financed activist campaigns and where progressive politics are more intertwined with youth culture. Scott Codey, a member of the New York City Fair Trade Coalition, said the number of retailers in the city selling fair trade products like coffee, tea, wine and clothing has grown to hundreds, from 25, in the last three years.
In general, the fair trade label means that farmers of crops like coffee or cocoa in the third world, or workers who stitch T-shirts in factories abroad, are paid fairly. The label is intended as a guide for socially conscious consumers in rich countries when buying goods that originate primarily in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Amid the wine bars and boutiques that line Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Jonathan Coulton, 36, a musician wearing black rectangular glasses, was hunched over a laptop at Gorilla Coffee, where a blackboard proclaims all its coffees are fair trade. It “makes you feel like you’re doing something good just by drinking a cup,” he said.
It may be trendier to advertise clothing as green, or, in the words of a recent Barney’s Co-Op window display, as “insanely sustainable,” but fair trade — and its cousin, “sweatshop-free” — are gaining in popularity. Emily Santamore, a founder and a designer of Moral Fervor — a line of yoga clothing made from an eco-friendly fabric and, according to its Web site, “produced sweatshop-free in Portugal” — said boutiques regularly ask about the origins of her products. For her customers, she added, fair trade assurances are “becoming almost necessary.”
TransFair USA, a nonprofit group in Oakland, Calif., that awards a Fair Trade Certified label to farm products, says fair trade coffee is the fastest-growing specialty coffee in the United States. It claims that since 1999, its programs have put $60 million more into the pockets of third-world coffee growers than they would have otherwise earned. Such goods were once stigmatized as uncool: the weird Guatemalan pants worn by a high school art teacher, or the muddy-flavored coffee served at a student-run cafe. But savvy marketing, and better products, have helped the fair trade label shed its frumpy image. American Apparel, the fast-growing chain that pays most of its factory workers above the garment-industry standard, and which runs advertisements featuring skinny hipsters in provocative poses, has increased many customers’ awareness of labor issues and raised the design ante for products promoted as socially conscious.
Proponents of the fair-trade movement, which began in the 1980s in Europe (and where flowers and even soccer balls are labeled fair trade), say the low prices that most companies pay to producers in economically disadvantaged countries cause widespread misery: poverty, unsafe work conditions and forced child labor.
TransFair USA, founded by a group of activists in 1998, says it audits American companies that receive its certification to ensure that third world farmers of coffee, cocoa, fruit and other crops receive a “fair, above-market price.” The group says the system has improved conditions on farms and that the additional income, subsidized by higher consumer prices, has enabled farmers to send their children to universities and communities to build clinics and schools.
Fair trade has a particular appeal to a generation of consumers that came of age during campus labor protests. In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford was humiliated on national television by the news that children in Honduras were making clothing bearing her name, and, in the ensuing years, student protesters demanded better conditions for workers making clothing with university logos; some streaked through campus because they would “rather go naked than wear sweatshop clothes.”
After graduating from the New School with a degree in literature in 1993, Sander Hicks, 36, the founder of Vox Pop, worked at a Kinko’s, where he and his fellow workers experimented with union organizing and even a worker collective. Now, he’s proud of his high-quality coffee, but asserts that the fair trade label gives it an additional “karmic kick.”
Not everyone is feeling it.
Some industry observers and journalists have identified labor abuses on farms producing crops that have been certified as fair trade by international groups, like paying migrant workers below a country’s legal minimum wage.
Jean Walsh, a spokeswoman for TransFair, conceded that this was sometimes the case. “But the fair trade system,” she said in an e-mail message, “is the only mechanism that begins to guarantee small-scale farmers the income they need to be able to improve the wages of laborers on their farms.”
(Unlike food, items such as clothing and other non-agricultural goods, when sold in the United States, have no single recognized certification system. Instead, consumers have to trust the wholesalers and retailers.)
And though many people buy fair trade products in reaction to what Mr. Codey of the New York fair trade coalition calls “mainstream commercial culture,” others point out that to make a real impact, fair trade has to become much more widespread, even if that means losing some of its in-group appeal.
Larger corporations, including McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, now offer some fair trade coffee, but, “it’s still too limited in the United States, to just a few commodities,” said Kevin Danaher, a founder of TransFair.
“It’s not places like Gorilla that are going to make a difference,” said Janice Allen, 27, a barista at Gorilla Coffee, with a piercing just over her lip and chipped blue nail polish. “Maxwell House going fair trade, that would make a difference.”
Posted by bean at 6:50 PM