Fair Trade in the Valley

By Melanie Gold

When Jon Clark started Home and Planet in a Macungie warehouse in 1996, his focus was on retailing environmentally responsible items. Back then, he says, “fair trade” was a term that really didn’t factor into his business plan. (Fair trade usually refers to goods produced in developing countries that are sold here.) Over time, though, as he expanded his business — Home and Planet is now a busy storefront in Southside Bethlehem — he also enlarged his mission.

Clark’s retail store sells locally made goods and repurposed or recycled items. Shoppers can buy messenger bags sewn by disabled Cambodian mining victims, flags produced by displaced Tibetan nuns, clothes recycled from Indian saris and items that support AIDS sufferers in Africa or impoverished Haitians. Clark calls these “socially responsible” products and their rising popularity might benefit more than the disadvantaged workers, farmers and artisans where they’re made.

According to Amy McAuliffe, director of the PA Fair Trade Coalition, fair trade helps preserve jobs right here in Pennsylvania. “When products are made under fair trade laws, there is a level playing field,” McAuliffe says.

When quality of life improves in places such as Mexico and Guatemala, for instance, local companies may be less likely to target those areas for relocation. According to this thinking, everyone benefits: fair trade producers’ lives improve while keeping Pennsylvanians at work.

Fairly traded goods commonly include foods, beverages, handcrafts, home accessories, clothing, health-and-beauty aids, even flowers and gold. The products’ countries of origin — Egypt, Guatemala, Uganda, Vietnam — are as diverse as the items themselves.

Pachacuti, a Macungie-based online store, sells jewelry and textiles from around the world and offers in-home jewelry parties to benefit the Mexican craftspeople who make the items. Online shoppers can find many other fair trade purveyors, including the nonprofit SERRV, whose gift-shop network includes stores in nearby Bucks County.

The Valley Preferred Cycling Center (popularly known as the Velodrome), founded by Robert Rodale, offers fair trade coffees and teas at its Breakaway Café, run by Rodale Catering and Events. The menu at the Velodrome was revamped this year with the active Valley dweller in mind, since it features all local, organic foods.

Troy Reynard has been selling fair trade coffees by the cup and the pound at The Cosmic Cup coffee shop in Easton. The former instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College says he “made a decision to do things the right way” five years ago and takes just as much pride in his privately sourced coffees as he does the certified varieties.

“Certified fair trade can be limiting, because only co-ops can get certification,” Reynard says, referring to Transfair, one of a growing number of international fair trade organizations. “It doesn’t take into account the single-family farm, such as Finca El Roble in Colombia. I’ve personally visited that farm and have an understanding for the conditions there and their organic practices.”

Reynard has established business relationships with farmers in Central America and South America, has visited their operations, and he says their images on his company T-shirts are great conversation starters. In July, Reynard participated in the Cup of Excellence coffee contest and auction, hosted by the nonprofit Alliance for Coffee Excellence. He paid roughly 600 times the fair trade price for the coffee he bid on, knowing the proceeds would go directly to the farmer. He expects to be selling the small-batch Honduran El Sauce coffee by late September.

Nearby, Christine Stazo describes tea in terms most people would reserve for wines and microbrews. Stazo operates Christine’s Secret Garden, a tea shop offering more than 125 specialty loose teas with names such as Formosa Gunpowder and 100 Monkeys. Stazo didn’t seek out fair trade teas, such as Adams Peak Rare White Tea from Sri Lanka, harvested from sacred mountains, but a few of the high-quality teas were among her customers’ requests.

Ask Stazo about her fair trade teas from Japan and Kenya, and she might show you her selection of cups, pots and all manner of tea accessories, too. Like other beverages, she says, a tea’s flavor depends largely on soil and climate, but there’s no accounting for the consumer’s taste.

“When I opened in 2007, I thought my customers would be primarily prim-and-proper ladies,” says Stazo, who was inspired to open her business after a Bucks County tea wholesaler served Prince Charles his afternoon cup during a Philadelphia visit. “I quickly learned not to make assumptions in this business.” Tea, she says, is a great equalizer.

“Tea is a very personal thing, and its preparation is an art form,” Stazo says. “People buy it for better health, or because they were raised on it, or for medicinal purposes.” Stazo personally assists new customers in selecting the right teas for their tastes and lifestyle, particularly since her loose teas come in 50-serving bags. “You know by looking at the leaves that it’s a quality tea. The leaves are whole, undamaged and not oxidized.” In addition, Stazo’s teas are hand-picked and carefully shipped.

Stazo knows that educating the consumer is a big part of running a business. For those who want try high-quality teas before committing to a 50-cup purchase, Easton’s Quadrant Book Mart will be serving tea by the cup beginning in September.

Still, Valley vendors say that while the idea of fair trade is nice, it’s not reason enough for the public to shop at their stores.

“No one’s going to buy something that’s not well made,” says Home and Planet’s Clark. “I look for things that are well made, stylish and functional, and also are fairly traded.”

Troy Reynard says fair trade is only “fair” when everyone is treated fairly, from the coffee grower to The Cosmic Cup’s baristas. “We’ve achieved growth every year in business because of our relentless commitment to quality and because we don’t mind paying for an excellent product,” he says. “We’re rewarded with more customers and greater loyalty. There’s an ethical quality to it.”

Melanie Gold is a freelance writer and book editor whose favorite ingredient when baking is fair trade chocolate.

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