Long known for its funky character and progressive values, residents in Brattleboro hope to marshal this image into economic policy.
A campaign is currently underway to obtain “fair trade” status, which would make Brattleboro the second such town in the nation, and the first in New England and Vermont.
Fair trade promotes equitable standards for international labor, environmentalism, and social policy in areas related largely to the production of consumer goods, ranging from handicrafts to agricultural commodities.
More specifically, exports are sold and traded for by developing countries to developed countries. Fair trade’s aim is to empower marginalized producers and workers.
Coffee, teas, spices, and bananas are fair trade products commonly sold on the market today and FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organization) statistics indicate that 2005 fair trade certified sales were estimated at more than $2 billion worldwide.
The idea for Brattleboro to become a fair trade town took root with Tami Stenn, the owner of Kusikuy Clothing Company in Brattleboro, a wholesale fair trade organic clothing company.
For the last three years, Stenn has co-organized the “Muna Fest,” an annual fair trade bazaar featuring more than 15 local fair trade vendors. Just before last year’s event, Stenn heard about fair trade town efforts in Media, PA, and thought it would be a great idea to pursue.
Joining her in the effort was Sara Stender, a graduate student at the School for International Training.
“[W]e wanted to establish more projects and the fair trade town came to me about a week or two before and we thought the Muna Fest event would be a great place to introduce the initiative,” said Stender.
Brattleboro is also home to the Brattleboro Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ), which offers users exemption from import duties and customs tariffs. In late December 2005, Brattleboro received approval to create the zone. The key difference between trade zone and the fair trade efforts is that some fair trade goods and services will be traded, and the town must meet the Fair Trade Foundation critieria (see sidebar).
Joe Famolare, president of the Brattleboro FTZ, welcomes fair trade efforts and also sees it as complementary to the trade zone. “I think it would be perfect. We’d love it,” said Famolare. “The object of our foreign trade zone is individualized organizations doing business. We’ve got the Central American Free Trade Agreement [being implemented] and I feel that in the foreign trade zone, we’d like to work with small countries like Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, they do big business with coffee. There is fair trade coffee coming in with Mocha Joe’s and such. So I think it suits Brattleboro.”
U.S. fair trade towns
In June 2006, Media became the first town in the nation to adopt Fair Trade Foundation standards. Hal Taussig, founder of Untours, Inc., got together with his staff to talk about whether Media could become a fair trade town. Only Taussig was familiar with the concept.
“[Hal] said two summers ago to a bunch of us, ‘Let’s make Media the first fair trade town,’ and we responded as any self-respecting people would — we all laughed at him,” said Liz Killough, associate director of the Untours Foundation, a provider of low interest loans to individuals and organizations for job creation and low-income housing and a supporter of fair trade products.
“I did a little research and found that Britain has over 200 fair trade towns and Europe has hundreds of fair trade towns, so I humored Hal by starting the process of doing some community organizing and was amazed that the campaign got a life of its own,” Killough added.
The Media Business Authority loved the idea and fast-tracked it to the Media Borough Council where the measure passed. Killough credits Media’s progressive business climate for the fast passage, but believes such a campaign could fly in many communities.
“It wouldn’t fly at all if the town wasn’t progressive to a certain degree. On the other hand, fair trade appeals very much to all places on the political spectrum. The right likes fair trade, in part, because it can keep people on their land and keep them from immigrating to the United States,” she noted.
Brattleboro: The ideal place to start
To get the idea rolling in Brattleboro, Stenn and Stender brought together a diverse group of people who have an interest in promoting social justice and Brattleboro’s economy.
The group’s first meeting was two weeks ago, and included local business owners; Famolare; Vern Grubinger, director of the University of Vermont Sustainable Agriculture Center; and Alex Wilson of Green Building magazine, said Stender.
Stender believes a fair trade zone in Brattleboro would work because it already meets most of the criteria put forth in the Fair Trade Foundation’s standards.
“Brattleboro has a very good foundation for fair trade consumerism. There are already a number of businesses here familiar with fair trade and selling products that are fair trade certified, so I think it’s a relatively educated community as well and a forward thinking people,” she said.
The Brattleboro Selectboard has not yet indicated whether it would approve such a measure, but one Selectboard member believes it’s a good idea.
“Poverty is a condition that no one should have to suffer and anytime that we as individuals or as a community can help raise people anywhere out of poverty it improves everybody’s quality of life,” said Audrey Garfield. “What Brattleboro is saying is we will not tolerate working conditions for people in other countries that we would not tolerate or accept for ourselves and I think it’s a really positive thing for anybody to get behind.”
Make it sustainable
Although there may be no direct opposition in Brattleboro, the crux of the matter is to ensure it will succeed in the long run.
“I think right now this really needs to be community-based in order for this movement to work,” said Stender. “We need to be spreading the word, we need more people at these meetings, but just to spread the word and get people talking. I don’t really see that as an obstacle but more of a challenge to get more people involved.”
“I just think that the hardest thing is working in an industry that’s not 100 percent formulated yet exactly what is fair trade. It’s still forming itself, which I think is fine,” said Stenn. “But I just think that ambiguity might be the thing that could stall us, so I think our biggest challenge is to keep clear and keep things moving and not get bogged down in too much ambiguity.”
For his part, Grubinger wants to ensure that local farmers are part of the process, and are considered as fair trade partners.
“You want to help people in developing countries get a fair price for their product but their situation is a similar to a lot of farmers here,” said Grubinger.
Others believe time and resources can make or break a fair trade endeavor.
“It’s not just financial resources but time and people able to commit to this because in order for anything to get off the ground and to be sustained you’ve got to have people working on it all the time,” said David Funkhouser, strategic outreach director of TransFair USA, who works with community and faith based organizations promoting fair trade products.
Garfield said that shouldn’t be a problem. “Brattleboro is really lucky to have very committed people serving on all types of committees. So I don’t think a [fair trade town] committee would be any different.”
“I think it goes along with ‘think globally, act locally’ as well,” said Stender. “I think that it’s really a Vermont value to support local businesses and smaller businesses and we are in a rural area and we need to continue to support that and to help benefit the economy locally. I think this is a great opportunity to really market Brattleboro.”
Becoming a fair trade town
To be recognized as a fair trade town the following must occur:
A local council passes a resolution supporting fair trade and agrees to serve fair trade tea and coffee at its meetings and in its offices and canteens;
A range of (at least two) fair trade products is readily available in the area’s shops and local cafes/catering establishments;
Fair trade products are used by a number of local workplaces and community organizations;
There is media coverage and popular support for the campaign; and,
A local steering committee is convened to ensure continued commitment to fair trade status.