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Fair trade marketing matures

By Mary Stamp

Two suitcases of craft items that a priest at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Colville brought back from Guatemala in 1986 started Pam Vail’s interest in fair trade.

Pam Vail
Pam Vail promotes fair trade for CRS

She set up a craft sale at her parish, where the late Father Jim McGreevy served after returning from several years at the diocesan mission in Guatemala.  Proceeds supported that mission.

“He told us of the extremes of wealth and poverty in Guatemala, and inspired us to do fair trade sales to address injustices,” Pam said.

Eventually, she learned about fair trade crafts and foods available on consignment through a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) partnership with SERRV, also called the Work of Human Hands Project.  SERRV is an international organization that purchases crafts and foods from small-scale artisans and farmers overseas to promote human dignity and self-sufficiency.

Pam has lived in the Northwest since graduating from high school in 1971 in Los Angeles.  After graduating from Evergreen State University in 1977, she moved to Walla Walla and then in 1983 to Colville, where her husband works with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.  In 1999, she earned a master’s in pastoral ministry at Gonzaga.

At first, her focus was on fair trade sales at her parish.  In 2002, she became the Diocese of Spokane’s consultant for CRS, the international relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic Church.  Two years ago, she trained as a Fair Trade Ambassador to visit parishes in the diocese to promote fair trade.

On behalf of CRS, she attended two Fair Trade Futures conferences, one in Chicago in 2005 and one in September in Boston, where she was able to meet producers and network with fair traders around the world. 

The first conference, she said, was celebratory.  The recent one was reflective, looking at successes and challenges such as certification, volume vs. value, commodities and other fair trade market issues.

The fair trade movement began in 1946 when businesswoman Edna Ruth Byler visited women artisans in Puerto Rico and decided to begin a global movement to end poverty through market-based solutions.  A display and sale at the Mennonite World Conference led to Mennonite involvement with what is now Ten Thousand Villages, working with artisans in more than 38 countries. 

SERRV began in 1949 when the Church of the Brethren created it to help refugees in post-World War II Europe sell wooden cuckoo clocks from Germany in the United States.  In 1960, Church World Service helped establish a U.S. church network to sell SERRV crafts.  SERRV works with producer groups and pays them upfront.

CRS contracts with SERRV.   Individuals, parishes or community groups can do consignment sales and have one percent of sales go to its Fair Trade Fund.

 “I love the idea of fair trade as a tangible, personal connection with the global community,” Pam said  “It makes sense to help people in their communities receive a fair price for what they produce.  People in this region can understand that.”

With the CRS ties with SERRV, she said, it’s easy to make the faith connection on the dignity of work, the value of every person, care of creation and global solidarity.

“I have a sense of working in relationship with people—rather than we in North America giving to poor neighbors to the South—through a fair and equitable exchange of goods in the marketplace,” she said.

For her, it touches the heart of the Catholic Church’s teaching about economic justice.

“I am a person of action.  My faith needs to be lived, not just kept in a church building.  I need to be out in the world,” she said.

Pam, who is also active in the Northwest Fair Trade Network, helps bring fair trade festivals to parishes.  She encourages parishes, Catholic Charities and the chancery to serve fair trade, shade-grown, organic coffee from CRS coffee-roasting partner Nectar of Life in Spokane Valley.  It shares at least two  percent of sales with CRS’ Fair Trade Fund. 

Other CRS partners are Divine Chocolate and Equal Exchange. 

“The story of cocoa farming draws concern as we learn children are sold into slavery to harvest cocoa beans used to make candy they could never afford to buy,” she said. “Before we bite into chocolate, even fair trade chocolate, we need to realize it is a precious commodity because of all the work that goes into it.

“A popular item for sale at a Work of Human Hands event is organic olive oil from the Holy Land,” Pam said. “The story of Sindyanna of Galilee fair trade olive oil, olive oil soap, spice and honey is a story of peace.”

It began as a nonprofit led by women seeking social change in Galilee through land preservation, environmental sustainability and fair trade.  It operates through cooperation of Arabs and Jews, to strengthen the economy of Arab Palestinians in Israel and Occupied Territories.

Pam learned at the fall Fair Trade Futures conference that it’s becoming harder to certify crafts and commodities.

SERRV is a member of the Fair Trade Federation, which sets principles.  Fair Trade USA (formerly Transfair) does most of the certification in the United States, as FLO does in Europe. They and Fair for Life, a new agency, certify food products like coffee, chocolate and sugar, she said.

“The question is how realistic is it to have one central certifying agency in North America, when most products come from the southern hemisphere,” she said.

Small organic farmers and craft producers also find it hard to become certified because of  what can be an unwieldly and expensive process with FLO or Fair Trade USA.  Some products are fair trade but not certified, Pam said, pointing out that “fairly traded” does not necessarily mean it is not a fair trade product.

Fair Trade for Life started to offer a less expensive, more producer friendly certification process, she said.

 “For me, if produce is not certified organic but I buy from a local farmer, whom I know and whose farming practices I know, I tend to prefer that over factory-farmed, certified organic food,” she said.

“The message is for consumers to be educated so they can vote with their dollars for what they want to support, learning how producers live,” Pam said.  “As consumers, we need to do our homework.  Certification is one way to be assured, but fair trade is nuanced.”

Another question is how much of a product needs to be fair trade for it to be certified: Should vanilla ice cream that uses only fair trade vanilla be certified? Should Starbucks, which offers only a small percentage of fair trade coffee, use the certification logo?  Should Walmart, which carries only a few fair trade items, claim fair trade certification?

“Should we celebrate that the mainstream is interested in fair trade or will it dilute fair trade?  There’s no definitive answer yet.  It’s one of the challenging questions facing the fair trade movement now,” Pam said.

For information, call 684-5742.

Fair-trade sales planned

During November, there will be several fair trade sales and festivals in advance of the holiday season.

The Catholic Relief Services Fair Trade Festival is set around the Mass schedule at St. Augustine Catholic Parish, 428 W. 19th Ave., 4:30 to 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 6, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 7. It will offer crafts and consumable products vendors. For information, call 509-684-5742.

First Presbyterian Church’s Jubilee Sale from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday Nov. 12, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 13, features fairly traded handcrafts from Ten Thousand Villages, as well as 32 other vendors. 

Vendors from the region and church include:

• Anuak Meer Ministry • Far East Handicrafts • Mali Mudcloth
• Barton School • Four Corners Market • Maya Earth Coffee
• Bead for Life • Ganesh Himal • Moonflower Enterprises
• Bolivian Books • Holy Land Ministries • Native Bead Art
• Christ Kitchen • Hmong Community • Rivers of Hope
• Conosur Imports • Hope Marketplace • Singing Shaman
• Divine & Theo Chocolate • Jian Hua Foundation • Thailand Orphanage
• Devtan Trading • Kizuri • Two Sisters Boutique
• Corazon Scarves • African Baskets • Zambia Gold Honey
• El Salvador Backpacks • Likki Tenderhearts  
• Fabulous African Fabrics • Maasai Beadwork  

Alternative gifts options include Heifer International, the Stewart Resurrection House and Transitions. For information call 448-0805 or visit

 • The Fair Trade Festival, sponsored by Ganesh Himal Trading and Kizuri, will be held Friday through Sunday, Nov. 26 to 28, at the Community Building, 35 W. Main. Vendors include Conosur Imports, Corazon Scarves, Bead for Life, Kizuri, Maya Earth Coffee, Moonflower Enterprises, Singing Shaman Traders and PJALS. 

For information, call 448-1219.