Saturday, May 12, 2007

Flowers, Fair Trade, and Mothers Day---A Rant

So, you've heard about Fair-Trade Coffee, wherein indigenous coffee-growers and harvesters earn living wages via trade practices which honor workers' rights, human rights, and the inevitable environmental impact of coffee growing, including widespread pesticide and herbicide use. Dean's Beans, Global Exchange, Equal Exchange, and other progressive companies have catapulted this practice into the mainstream, and Middle America is beginning to understand how its thirst for coffee can fuel worker exploitation and environmental degradation.

That said, places like Starbucks (no link needed---they don't need free advertising) pay some lip service to fair trade, inconsistently offering one or two fair-trade flavors, but could do a great deal more to support the cause. With their profits through the roof---and a potential move into small restaurants under the Starbucks banner in the near future---the "Evil Coffee Empire" (as it is known in some quarters) could adopt 100% fair-trade practices vis-a-vis its coffee and chocolate, jettisoning recognition of fair trade further into the mainstream. Even though many of their practices are laudable---like employee benefits, socially responsible investing with Calvert,
and attention towards the environmental impact of coffee growing, Starbucks could use its cultural ubiquitousness and name recognition to take Fair Trade to the next level. Perhaps some day they will. That said, I still buy the odd coffee at Starbucks myself, though I always choose a local cafe if one can be found.

Next comes Fair-Trade Chocolate. Like coffee growers and harvesters, indigenous cocoa farmers are often exploited by middlemen and global corporations which ignore human rights, environmental impact, and the need for a living wage. Fueling the worldwide demand for a luxury item---chocolate---is a billion dollar industry, and many families suffer as they try to feed, clothe and educate children on the subsistence wages earned growing cocoa, often the only viable choice in a globalized market that has shut out small independent (and mostly indigenous) farmers. Lutheran World Relief, A Greater Gift, Global Exchange, and many other companies have stoked the flames of consumer activism in the interests of cocoa farmers, and many chocoholics are realizing that their predilection for chocolate does not need to be borne on the backs of indigenous farmers.

On Valentine's Day of this year, I posted a missive which included a paragraph dedicated to the human costs related to the flower industry. As detailed on DemocracyNow!:

"Approximately 60 percent of all flowers sold in the United States come from Colombia. A third of Ecuador’s yearly production is exported to the U.S. for Valentine’s Day. Flower workers in these countries earn poverty-level wages, work long hours, and suffer significant health problems due to pesticides. The report also finds that over half of women workers in the flower industry in Colombia and Ecuador have been subjected to sexual harassment".

According to Jobs with Justice, Dole is the sole U.S. wholesaler that owns flower plantations abroad, including 20 in Colombia alone. Dole has reneged on contract agreements, and has periodically fired workers for no apparent legal reason other than workers' efforts to gain access to living wages and humane working conditions. You can sign a petition at Jobs with Justice's website to petition Dole to negotiate in good faith.

Failing tackling Dole and other multinationals singlehandedly, what is the earnest consumer to do? Just like with chocolate and coffee, one can make the informed decision to go to reliable sources which offer fair-trade certified organic flowers which are often reviewed by third parties for compliance with agreed-upon standards. The cost is often comparable, and we have never paid more than a few dollars extra by choosing fair-trade. Organic Bouquet is one of many sites where you can buy with a clear conscience, and as usual in these types of endeavors, Google is still your best friend.

So, without wanting to be a nay-sayer or kill-joy, one of my self-appointed missions on this Earth is to be an activist for causes which I feel are in need of attention, are relatively easy to address as an individual consumer, and whose impact can have far-reaching reverberations. If you've already ordered your Mothers Day flowers (and I hope by now you have, for your sake!), please take this message to heart and consider buying fair trade the next time you have occasion to order flowers or plants for someone you love.

In this culture where purchases are often only a click away from the comfort of our homes with credit-card in hand, we can easily choose to use the savings on gas from not driving to the store to buy with our heart and our conscience. Of course, we choose our battles carefully in this life, and there are daily decisions that we must make which have far-reaching impacts of which we are blissfully unaware (with a nod to George Orwell).

That said, every choice is an opportunity, and with every opportunity we take to do good in the world, we are contributing to a growing movement towards humanitarianism, environmental awareness, human rights, and a world where all are equally able to pursue liberty and happiness for themselves and their families. Does that chocolate bar effect the life of a Colombian cocoa grower living in the bush? Ask her, and one look in her eyes will answer your question. Consider eschewing Nestles, Hersheys, Maxwell House, FTD, and flowers.com, and spend your money through the filter of your conscience. We'll all feel better, and some of us will actually live better. What could be a better Mothers Day gift than that?
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