Sunday, November 11, 2007

Living Generously Through Fair Trade

This weekend I got to spend some time in Indiana, as guest of Global Gifts and their 5th Annual “Helping Hands Festival.” Global Gifts is a growing nonprofit with two stores in Indianapolis. Every year they try to help local charitable and religious groups sell handcrafted items by hosting a market for organizations that have not yet achieved “Fair Trade” status. There is live entertainment, and The Juniper Spoon, a caterer of traditional dishes emphasizing local and organic ingredients, nourishes shoppers and vendors. Besides being a lot of fun, this gathering is a perfect example of how Fair Traders work to promote advancement and opportunity for disadvantaged and marginalized groups.

While Global Gifts can only sell products from Fair Trade Federation members, it wants to help small entrepreneurs build a customer base for their artisan partners in countries such as El Salvador, Haiti, Nepal and Senegal. From a strictly conventional trade standpoint, this is would be seen as shooting yourself in the foot: using your own brand name recognition to give exposure to companies that are trying to enter your market. But sharing resources and connections is core to the Global Gifts operations, which is why the festival theme of “Living Generously” fit perfectly.

I was asked to kick off the festival with some educational info, so I told stories from my book and recent travels to demonstrate how and why Fair Traders make it implicitly and explicitly part of their activities to live generously. There were lots of perspectives to share. Certainly there is the obvious connection of socially responsible gift-giving during the approaching holiday season. If you are going to be generous to loved ones, it is a perfect fit to also be generous to the artisans who handcrafted the products by making sure a Fair Trade is possible. Fair Trade businesses--whether through association or aspiration--are also being generous by reducing their own profit margins in order to share the benefits of trade with their producer partners. But we can go beyond these transaction to uncover how the act of consciously consuming is an act of generosity.

Holidays are a time of hyper-consumption when advertising tells us we have to spend, spend, spend to prove our love or demonstrate our success. As Thanksgiving approaches the commercials start, and we look at the calendar counting the days before big gift-giving events. If we can interrupt the barrage of those messages by asking some questions about what we are giving, how, and why, Fair Trade can be a mechanism for being generous with ourselves.

Lately taking time out for myself equals generosity. No answering emails, no checking things off the to-do list, no loads of laundry. Instead I “give myself” time just being still and, okay, petting my cats. That stillness seems precious because I am so often caught up in doing things, accomplishing tasks. It becomes a gift, too, because I reap the benefit of being more settled, more patient, and more emotionally available. With Christmas on the horizon-- shopping and visiting loved ones and all the attendant activities--stillness will be in short supply. But stopping and asking myself some simple but profound questions is a way to be generous to myself and prepare myself for the weeks ahead.

This is a possibility for all consumers. At this time of year, especially, we are trained to super-shoppers with a long list that we have to check at least twice. I heard recently that children receive 3,000 advertising messages each day. I imagine it is more for adults. No wonder we enter this holiday season inundated with ideas about over-consuming. However, embracing Fair Trade can help us change old habits and patterns. Shopping at a craft festival instead of a big-box store is one way to have a new routine. To help ourselves make those kinds of switches we have to take some time and reflect on how we approach giving. We also have to think about the act of giving itself. Are we being generous from a material standpoint but cutting corners from an emotional or ethical standpoint? How is this purchase impacting the person who made it, not just the person who receives it? How is my shopping spree itself contributing to the pace I want for my life and my family?

Each of us has to answer these types of questions for ourselves, and I know I am sorely in need of more time and space to reflect deeply how generous I can be this holiday season. I thank Sam, Jennifer, Mary, Beth and all the other good folks at the Helping Hands Festival for the opportunity to get me thinking on the real spirit of the season.

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