It’s a perfect Saturday afternoon for window-shopping along Main Street in Penticton. I spot a string of Buddhist prayer flags poised above Asian clothing in a window display and step into Red Bag. Instantly I’m engulfed in a kaleidoscope of hand-loomed silk and cotton scarves and hand-knit outerwear. Strings of gaily-coloured paper lanterns, crafted by a women’s co-op in a high-ceilinged new building in the Kathmandu suburb of Bhaktapur, crisscross the store above racks of striped Nepali homespun clothing and piles of yak-leather purses.
It’s one of the busiest stores on the street. A tall teen is trying on shirts, assisted by owner Derek Adduono (left). His partner in business and life, Brooke Nowak, is high on a ladder searching out the exact shawl a young woman has requested. Several other customers meander. It’s like a mini-visit to an Indian bazaar.
Intrigued by Derek’s claim to be an “ethical trade” business rather than a certified “Fair Trade” or Fairtrade operation, I’ve come not only to shop, but also to understand just what these terms mean in practice.
What is fair or ethical?
Officially fair trade refers to the broad concept of fairness and decency in the marketplace, while Fairtrade refers to the umbrella organization Fairtrade International, which includes among its members Fairtrade Canada. How people practice fair trade is largely determined by how they understand the problems that need to be addressed. Ethical trade can be wound up in all three or completely separate.
Turns out I’ve come to the right place to learn. Derek studied international business management at the University of Lethbridge.
His final paper was entitled Is Fair Trade Really Fair Trade?
“Not necessarily,” he says in answer to his own question. “Canadian or US companies take over small companies of five or six workers and combine them with others. These companies have the money for lawyers and paperwork needed for Fair Trade certification that many small groups do not. But then the large corporations are in control and there is no longer direct benefit or sense of ownership for the small family company.” At this point images of horrifying fires in Bangladesh garment factories where Loblaw’s Joe Fresh clothing is manufactured spring to mind.
A few days later, during an interview with Carol Dodge, president of Kelowna’s Sun Country Furniture, I discover that she is also skeptical. “My business is not certified as Fair Trade. I have found over the years that these businesses outside of Canada that promote Fair Trade are not ethical and under the guise of fair trade they are making a lot of money.”
Both Derek and Carol prefer to establish direct personal relationships with their trading partners. “I visit my suppliers, small family factories in Vietnam, China and Indonesia, every year,” says Carol. “Over 20 years of doing business I have seen the lifestyles of these families improve, children sent to university and families being able to buy property for a home.”
“We didn’t do this through an organization or big corporation,” says Derek. “That would take the originality, adventure and authenticity out of the whole equation.”
Like-minded Cathy (photo below) and Bob Tordiff operated Terra Incognita Imports in Summerland for seven years then moved to Vernon’s Main Street a year ago. “We do not belong to any organization but make every effort to deal with people who practice ethical work practices and provide safe and clean working conditions as well as fair pay for their employees,” says Cathy. “We have travelled to most of the countries we sell from; Thailand, India, Indonesia and Nepal. We source our own products and also do business with other people who go to these countries. We have a personal relationship with most.”
“Ethical trade is a matter of conscience,” says Derek. “Our store is very personal. What we do and the relationships we have with our suppliers are built from the ground level. We work on social and environmental accountability. We look at the working environments, the fabrics we use, the rates we pay, everything down to the biodegradable bags we use and our gift certificates made from handmade paper from a women’s co-op.”
Once a year Derek and Brooke visit Nepal for a month to ensure their partners are providing fair treatment, fair wages and a good place for their employees to work. They’ve dealt with one family business that knits the woollen goods they’ve been selling for five years. “We often go to the family home for dinner or tea. It takes lots of tea to do business,” says Derek.
See more on Penticton’s Red Bag, Vernon’s Terra Incognita, Shuswap Coffee Company and Summerland’s Soulfull Project >>>