Burlington Vows to Play Fair . . . Trade | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Business

Burlington Vows to Play Fair . . . Trade

Local Matters


Published September 23, 2009 at 6:58 a.m.

The single-serving coffeemaker in Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss’ office is swapping its old blend for a new brew — call it Green Mountain Fair Trade Select.

That unremarkable event is the latest sign of a fledgling campaign to put Burlington at the center of a fair trade revolution. The Queen City recently became the country’s 12th Fair Trade Town, joining a tiny handful of cities that have made a symbolic commitment to its inherent principles of fair trade: fair prices for goods, just labor conditions and environmental sustainability.

Fair trade is not new to Burlington. Stores have been selling fair trade coffee, honey, fruit, vanilla, chocolate and artisan crafts for years.

But organizers hope the new moniker will shine a brighter spotlight on fair trade products and the local businesses that sell them. Last week, a new Burlington Fair Trade Town website went live. An October 17 forum on the subject at Burlington City Hall Auditorium will bring together coffee companies and activists to preach the fair trade gospel. Organizers hope a Guatemalan coffee farmer will be there, too.

For all the grassroots promotion, however, no one is putting actual money behind marketing Burlington as a Fair Trade Town beyond free pamphlets. Not the organization that certifies Fair Trade Towns. Not the City Council that passed a resolution officially declaring its support for fair trade. Not the largest corporate partner, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which made an early and significant commitment to fair trade and to underpaid coffee growers around the world.

Burlington is not unique in that respect. Fair Trade Towns around the country rely on free marketing, media exposure and a few fundraisers to get the word out, according to Billy Linstead Goldsmith, national coordinator for Fair Trade Towns USA.

What about purchasing policies? Only San Francisco, Burlington’s sister in progressive policymaking, is toying with language that would require city government to purchase fair trade products when they cost the same, and are of comparable quality, as conventional ones.

You might think it would be a no-brainer in a liberal town like Burlington. Not so, says Sandy Wynne, one of the campaign’s organizers. The Burlington resolution encourages city government to purchase fair trade goods but doesn’t obligate it to.

“It wasn’t a slam dunk,” says Wynne, who used a fair trade soccer ball as her prop when lobbying the city council to pass a resolution in support of fair trade in August.

“Sometimes you just assume because we are a very progressive, open-minded area, that fair trade is definitely a no-brainer. But there are coffee shops right on Church Street that don’t sell fair trade.”

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which sells some 40 varieties of fair trade coffee sourced from 88 co-ops in 12 countries, isn’t spending anything directly to proclaim Burlington as a Free Trade Town, but is launching a series of regional and national “Be Fair” events to mark October as Fair Trade Month. The company’s support will consist of working with the local steering committee, participating in and promoting the October 17 forum and providing free coffee samples, says Green Mountain spokeswoman Sandy Yusen.

The campaign’s backers believe the symbolic designation and grassroots promotion can translate into real money going to local businesses that sell fair trade goods, and to producers that make and grow them around the world.

“In order to increase demand for something, you have to create awareness,” Wynne says. “The more we increase awareness, the more you are likely to go into a store or restaurant and say, ‘Do you have any fair trade coffee?’”

To win Fair Trade Town status, a city must do five things: form a steering committee representing local businesses, organizations, religious groups and individuals; host a media event to promote local retailers and fair trade; document at least eight stores that offer fair trade products; show there is a range of fair trade products available in town; and persuade the city council to pass a resolution supporting fair trade.

Burlington is the second Vermont city to adopt the status, following Brattleboro. Towns that have adopted the moniker have spawned fair trade concerts, crawls, even a prom.

Burlington’s Fair Trade Town campaign is the brainchild of three local women, each with a firsthand experience that made them fair trade converts.

Melinda Haselton was teaching kindergarten at a boarding school in Dharamsala, India, where tuition costs put school out of reach for some families. She returned home with jewelry from Indian craftswomen and donated the $500 she made selling it for fair trade prices back to the school to defray tuition costs. Haselton has since opened Dolma Designs, a locally based fair trade importing business that sells jewelry, tablecloths and other artisan crafts from India and Nepal.

In less than four years, she’s donated more than $3000 back to the boarding school, and paid the craftswomen far more than they’d otherwise earn.

Courtney Lang, the demonstration coordinator at City Market, was touring a Costa Rican coffee plantation last November when she had what she calls a “smack in the face” moment. She saw workers with kids strapped on their backs, toiling long hours in the dusty coffee fields for dirt pay. Lang jumped into the fair trade movement upon her return, but admits it can’t solve all the world’s problems.

“More of a long-term solution would be less coffee farmers and more diversity,” Lang says. In the meantime, she says making Burlington a Fair Trade Town is a powerful tagline for local businesses to promote their goods.

The third organizer, real estate broker Sandy Wynne, was a graduate student at St. Michael’s College when her fair trade “eye-opener” came: a class trip to a coffee plantation in El Salvador.

“We watched folks carrying incredibly heavy sacks of beans on their backs,” Wynne says. “It was hot, probably 95 degrees. You looked at the living conditions. These folks were working like crazy, earning very little money.”

Wynne penned her master’s thesis on fair trade, specifically the trouble Vermont businesses face marketing it: For example, if your store sells fair trade products, what does it say about the ones that are not fairly traded?

It’s yet another thing for Kiss — and the rest of us — to contemplate over a steaming cup.