MANKATO, Minn. — Jeanie Hinsman doesn’t have to spend as much time as she used to detailing the basics of fair trade as she spreads the gospel of ensuring consumers and employers pay fair compensation to the people producing the goods.
“The knowledge is getting out there, but we have still a long way to go,” said Hinsman, who manages the New Ulm’s Own store, which sells fair trade items and promotes the mission.
“The biggest factor in people having learned more is through the churches. We have nine fair trade churches in town who carry products and do some education on the issue. That’s been a really important channel for spreading information on fair trade.”
Dr. Keith Stelter, who with wife Dr. Carrie Stelter opened The Fair Emporium in St. Peter five years ago, said one item in particular has introduced more people to fair trade.
“There’s more awareness of fair trade since some of the fair trade coffee has become more commonly marketed even in regular grocery stores,” he said.
Jane Dow, co-chair of the Mankato Area Fair Trade Town Initiative, said the biggest promoters of fair trade are churches.
While the area initiatives are relatively new, Mountain Lake boasts one of the first fair trade stores, Ten Thousand Villages, which opened 40 years ago.
“Our goal is to educate people. We’ve been to many international festivals, including in Mankato. And we have a kiosk at River Hills Mall at Christmas,” said manager Joyce Bucklin.
The Ten Thousand Villages concept has its roots in the Mennonite community, which in the 1940s saw it as a way to support people in impoverished areas by helping them sell their products. The Mountain Lake store grew from the strong Mennonite population in the area.
Eight years ago the Mankato City Council voted to become the first Fair Trade Town in the state, a declaration that means the city promotes fair trade and, in certain circumstances, buys products certified as such. The city is among 25 cities in the country that have adopted the designation and remains the only one in Minnesota.
Gustavus Adolphus College became the first Fair Trade College in Minnesota in 2015 and Loyola Catholic High School became the first high school with the designation the same year.
The MAFTTI group has worked to educate and encourage more stores to carry fair trade products, but so far hasn’t set up a shop of its own, the Mankato Free Press reported. “We talk about a store or pop-up shops, but that hasn’t materialized. It’d be nice to have that here,” Dow said.
Like the move to organics, the fair trade movement has the attention of corporate America. Target recently announced that all of its private-label Archer Farms coffee bags and pods will be certified fair trade by 2022. Target sells 6 million pounds of Archer Farms coffee each year.
Currently about 20% of Archer Farms coffee is certified as fair trade.
While many see fair trade products getting more shelf space from national retailers as a success for the movement, Hinsman said others see it as a marketing ploy rather than a commitment to the cause.
“There’s a lot of debate over that. There are people who are purists who don’t think it’s fair for large stores to jump on the bandwagon when there are so many products they offer that are the antithesis to fair trade. They’re doing it to bring a certain customer in, but they’re not fair trade minded.”
While there are 45 Fair Trade Towns in the United States, the country trails many others. The United Kingdom has 635 Fair Trade Towns and Germany has 596.
Fair trade products generally carry a higher price tag, but promoters say the difference often isn’t significant and the benefits obvious.
“I always explain to people that when I started to purchase fair trade items for myself I bought things that wouldn’t break my budget,” Hinsman said.
“I started with baking cocoa. Coffee is definitely more expensive, but it’s much better quality.” The New Ulm store sells 14-ounce bags of fair trade coffee for $8.
“On our handmade gift items, people are surprised it’s not more expensive. In the end it’s what the market will bear. If you believe people should get paid what they deserve and there’s no child labor and safe working conditions, should it cost more to do the right thing?”
Hinsman shopped at fair trade stores whenever traveling and thought the concept should be brought to New Ulm.
The shop opened two years ago in a small space in the back of a retail building.
“We’re a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization. Our purpose is to donate to local charity. Our mission is to support marginalized women globally and locally.”
They contribute money to the New Ulm Ministerial Association’s women’s shelter, which provides emergency shelter and support services to homeless single women and children.
“The global part is that 85% of fair trade products are made by women, even the agriculture like coffee and tea. So it helps them have a sustainable income and a market,” Hinsman said.
Beyond the items from artisans around the world, the shop carries local artists’ work. “Art, books, weaving, pottery, jewelry by local artists. We’re just a cute little boutique.”
They source much of the items they carry through the Fair Trade Federation.
On May 11, they’re hosting a Fair Trade Tasting where most of the downtown local restaurants will feature one of the shop’s products.
Keith Stelter began toying with the idea of a fair trade store during international travels.
“I’d seen some of the goods and products sold in different open markets, mostly in India, and thought it was unique stuff, and if we ever had the opportunity, a store like this would be a nice hobby.”
He and his wife, both family physicians, thought a fair trade store would fit nicely with the unique shops in St. Peter.
He said that with each item sold they include a story card telling about the artist and how it’s helping them.
“People appreciate that. They’re surprised about it. We’re so used to transactional things we forget there’s a person behind the item.”
They get about 70% of their inventory from the two biggest fair trade operations in the country — SERRV International and Ten Thousand Villages.
Stelter said the shop does half of its annual sales in November and December as people shop for holiday gifts.
“It’s a unique gift shop. A customer has to be in the market for something different and unique and that fits a certain need.”
The Mountain Lake store is connected to a thrift shop and a coffee shop and started out under the name Care and Share.
“It started in a small space and grew a lot,” Bucklin said.
“It’s all to benefit people who are struggling. The money raised is given around the world by the Mennonite Central Committee.”
Many of the items in the shop come from a Ten Thousand Villages warehouse in Pennsylvania.
“A lot of other fair trade stores buy from Ten Thousand Villages. They’re the biggest in the U.S. for non-food products. There are 90 of the stores in the country, including one in St. Paul.
“Ten Thousand Villages buys products from people and asks what a living wage for them is in their country. They pay the artisan up front directly because they want to make sure they get paid.
“Everything is handmade, so it’s like buying a piece of art. Very unique and interesting things.”
The Mankato group organizes several events throughout the year.
Each year they participate in World Fair Trade Day, which is May 11 this year.
At Cub east and Hy-Vee hilltop they host coffee samplings from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. “We’ll have displays showing who carries fair trade and explain it to people.”
In October, during Fair Trade Month, MAFTTI will have an event at Mankato Brewery.
They are discussing hosting a large bazaar next spring where fair trade companies can display items.
They are also working with Richard DeBona, of Catholic Charities in Mankato, who has been developing a network of fair trade groups in the region.
“Fourteen came together so far. It’s a way for people who do fair trade to meet each other and share ideas,” Dow said.
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Mankato Free Press.