Fair Trade

A Remedy for Living: What Fair Trade in an Edmonton Cafe Taught Me

“CHANA MASALA!”

Remedy Café seemed like an informal language school as Indian and Pakistani food orders were increasingly yelled out.

Sohail Zaidi, better known as Zee, is Remedy’s creator. He sat calmly before me, clearly used to all the noise and bustle. “The orders are yelled out because then you hear it and you learn how to say the names. People become educated and they know what dahl is instead of calling it lentils,” he said.

Abra King makes a chai at Remedy’s downtown location on Jasper Avenue.  Many employees have worked at Remedy for years. To Zee, his employees, like Abra King, are the next generation of business leaders. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

Abra King makes a chai at Remedy’s downtown location on Jasper Avenue.
Many employees have worked at Remedy for years. To Zee, his employees, like Abra King, are the next generation of business leaders. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

He continued to tell me about the café’s most popular feature, its worst kept secret: Remedy’s chai. “My chai is made from thirty-five spices,” the coarse spices struggled to slip through his fingers, getting caught as he passed them from one hand to the other. Chewing on a dark brown bead of cardamom, Zee encouraged me to follow his lead. It tasted unexpectedly like mint as it dissolved in my mouth. Zee continued his lesson, breaking down his chai’s ingredients even further.

“All of the herbs are organic, no preservatives,” he began. “The teas come from Kenya, India, and Bangladesh. I always make sure it’s Fair Trade and organic.” The use of Fair Trade and organic products encourages customers to share in creating a better world in Zee’s opinion.

***

Days earlier, I had left Blush Lane Organics (a grocery store specializing in global Fair Trade and Albertan organic produce) for the first time. Both hands swung bags full of Fair Trade and Albertan organic produce like Holy Crap: the world’s most amazing breakfast cereal (pun intended), Cheeky: Be the Sassy Banana salted toffee and banana organic dark chocolate bar (perhaps no pun intended?), and a couple of green mangoes the size of the Hulk’s fist.

A profile of Michael Zelmer, an activist for Fairtrade who explains the connection between buying local and Fair Trade products as this: “When you’re buying local it’s not fair to think ‘it’s from nearby so that makes it local’. Buying local is about security—making sure we have the necessary infrastructure to grow our own food and to support local farmers. Those same principles are in play when it comes to Fair Trade.” Photo:Fairtrade International Canada

A profile of Michael Zelmer, an activist for Fairtrade who explains the connection between buying local and Fair Trade products as this: “When you’re buying local it’s not fair to think ‘it’s from nearby so that makes it local’. Buying local is about security—making sure we have the necessary infrastructure to grow our own food and to support local farmers. Those same principles are in play when it comes to Fair Trade.” Photo:Fairtrade Canada

When I visited the store that day, I’d chastised myself for not bringing reusable bags with me. But in the end, there was no need for worry. The paper bags they provided me with were certified triple threats: renewablecompostable, and recyclable. Those words and all the ones which stood out on boxes and containers in the store, spoke of a current movement to change the world by producing sustainable, healthy, and overall fair food. As I criss-crossed through narrow aisles, I couldn’t translate the language I was reading all around me. How did the words fit within the narrative of my own life?

A few days later, an appeal for me to not give up on Fair Trade stood out from a chalkboard sign, arguing: Buy Fair Trade because it will improve the world! The words were proudly displayed by the front doors of Ten Thousand Villages on Whyte Avenue for all to see.

In the late 1940s, an American named Edna Ruth Byler — the founder of Ten Thousand Villages — felt that it was time for the principles of business to change after she’d travelled to Puerto Rico and saw unfair business practices put into place there. Edna returned to her home with a vision of how business profits should be used to make people stronger and to weaken injustice and poverty. Edna began a business selling the crafts of artisans from around the world in her basement, and large profits were sent back to the original creators.

Now, Fairtrade International [which is different from the term “Fair Trade” as this refers to the movement to buy products created through sustainable, fair business practices and “Fairtrade” refers to the organization itself] follows a similar message as Edna. Fairtrade works to decrease the power of the middleman who plays a part in getting products from the farmer’s fields to our kitchen table. By decreasing or even eliminating the middleman’s role, farmers and artisans worldwide can have a larger share of the profits they earn with their products.

Messages like the one in front of Whyte Avenue’s Ten Thousand Villages are promoted throughout Edmonton businesses. The owners are people like Edna with a vision to make their community a better place. I was rushing to meet one of them, who owned a cafe with “Edmonton’s worst kept secret” as the businesses’ twitter account boasted.

***

The world had been brought into Remedy café with images of nature on its vibrant walls. The pictures were close ups of purple and yellow Hawaiian flowers taken by Zee himself. At other times in the year, local artists have exhibited their work on his café’s walls – just another way that Zee supports local business.

Remedy’s interior décor is also a reflection of Zee’s worldly experiences. This became clearer as he continued talking about his life moving through dusty alleyways in Pakistan, to cramped apartment living in Germany, and finally, dreaming big while looking at skyscrapers from the driver’s seat of his yellow New York taxi — all these experiences eventually lead him to settle down in Edmonton, Alberta where he bought a sandwich cafe and turned it into Remedy.

While we laughed and contemplated his coming of age story, Zee explained why he loved to travel so much as a young man. “Travelling teaches you so much…when you see how people live elsewhere, you’re thankful for your life and the people in it.” Zee has been drawn to the Fair Trade movement’s philosophy because he himself was once less fortunate. “I know what poverty is and how hard people work, so I totally support Fair Trade.”

Talk of poverty soon turned to his disappointment in inequality between people in the world who are all trying to make a living. After all, as he expressed, “we all bleed the same”.

***

Despite our common trait of being warm blooded humans, it doesn’t stop people from taking advantage of one another.

Michael Zelmer, an activist and communications coordinator with Fairtrade Canada, told me excitedly over the phone a couple days after I met Zee that Fair Trade is meant to help people live lives where poverty doesn’t dictate the quality of life they lead. I asked Michael if he thought being involved in Fair Trade made it less likely for a farmer or artisan to be abused by unfair business practices. The answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

There’s no clear way of knowing, Michael responded. However, there was a silver lining. Michael then explained that Fair Trade could never become a new “dictator” to farmers and artisans like the middleman by controlling farmer’s resources and opportunity to one day become powerful in their own right.

Butter chicken and rice with a cup of Remedy’s chai. With Fairtrade’s help, profits from plantations and farms where the teas and spices are cultivated are shared equally amongst farmers. Wages have to be either equal to or higher than the regional standard. It’s hoped that the regional standards will be improved and influenced by the Fairtrade model. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

Butter chicken and rice with a cup of Remedy’s chai.
With Fairtrade’s help, profits from plantations and farms where the teas and spices are cultivated are shared equally amongst farmers. Wages have to be either equal to or higher than the regional standard. It’s hoped that the regional standards will be improved and influenced by the Fairtrade model. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

“The key thing to understand,” Michael stressed, “is that it’s [Fairtrade’s mission] about allowing farmers [and artisans] to become powerful above and beyond Fair Trade…. The relationship to people… is that we’re supporting them, and not in a charitable manner with donations, but by making smart choices. We may be paying a bit more for those smart choices but they support all these transformative things that are happening out there in the world.”

At Remedy while witnessing smiles and laughter shared over hot drinks and food, I could already see some of that change happening.

The café was its own community. The world was reinvented once you entered through its front door. Hipsters, Chanel accessorized women sitting next to proud mothers of soccer kids, solemn studious types intently staring at glowing laptop screens — all of them surrounded me, eating food made with Fair Trade and even local organic ingredients. Regardless of whether or not the customers knew that they were tasting Fair Trade inspired recipes, they were still supporting a farmer somewhere in the world simply by consuming Remedy’s food.

I finished my visit to the café by drinking some chai and eating butter chicken. During the meal, my idea of Fair Trade shifted from the thought of making the world a better place to the practice of living better in the moment.

As the scents of garlic and cumin wafted towards me and the taste of minty cardamom lingered in my mouth, some of Zee’s final words crossed my mind: I think people appreciate the little things we do.

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Smart Choices: An Interview with Fairtrade Canada’s Michael Zelmer

Fair Trade is a movement with an ambitious goal to change the way that we live for the better. [“Fair Trade” refers to the need to promote fairness in the market and treat people — from farmers to consumers — with respect whereas “Fairtrade” refers to the organization that created the certification system for Fair Trade products.]  Farmers and artisans are provided with an opportunity to celebrate and share their work, and buyers are given a chance to support them by purchasing their products, and in the process change the way trade and business relations operate. This is an interview about the principles of Fair Trade and why according to Michael Zelmer of Fairtrade Canada, we should consider becoming involved in this growing movement.

What year did Fair Trade arrive in Canada?
Fair Trade happened here [in Canada] in the 1960s. And it originated with Ten Thousand Villages back in the 1940s. The certification system began in 1988 in the Netherlands and the first certified product came here [to Canada] in 1997.

Within the past year, how much have Fair Trade sales increased in the Canadian market?
On our website there are tables that show these figures. These surveys are done every couple of years. There’s also a survey of Canadian perceptions of Fair Trade.

(You can find these charts and the survey by clicking this link: http://fairtrade.ca/en/about-fairtrade/facts-figures.)

Zelmer1Michael Zelmer of Fair Trade Canada

When we talk about local and buying Fair Trade, it seems to have distance implicit in that. People buy chocolate, they consume coffee, etc. made from local or international farmer’s products… the principle for dealing with farmers and international farmers should be similar, regardless.

The University of Alberta in Edmonton is attempting to become a Fair Trade campus. Why is it important for cities and schools to promote Fair Trade?
The town or university doesn’t get certified [only products are certified], but they get a status that recognizes their leadership in promoting Fair Trade. If you have cities and universities that are purchasing [Fair Trade] products, then they get goods that provide information. People buy items with limited information. With Fair Trade certified products, they’re able to know that there are certain standards related to the environment, related to social relationships between the buyers and sellers and the general labour and human rights standards that are all put into place. So it gives [buyers] at the University the advantage of knowing that there’s a set standard in place… so they have a positive impact with their purchases.

Once a town and/or university become certified do Fair Trade sales, overall, tend to increase?
Sales tend to increase and it influences ethical purchasing policies developed by cities and institutions like universities. What we see is that when a large institution makes a decision like this, it sends a signal to the marketplace to show that Fair Trade is important. It also creates an incentive to make more Fairtrade products available. Companies now have a way to do a bit of good, through the products, making the symbolism of their actions spread as well.

What’s the relation between buying local and buying Fair Trade?
When we talk about local and buying Fair Trade, it seems to have distance implicit in that. People buy chocolate, they consume coffee, etc. made from local or international farmer’s products… the principle for dealing with farmers and international farmers should be similar, regardless. There’s an issue of understanding the system that supports the production of these products. When you’re buying local it’s not fair to think “it’s from nearby so that makes it local”. Buying local is about security—making sure we have the necessary infrastructure to grow our own food and to support local farmers. Those same principles are in play when it comes to Fair Trade.

How does the middleperson function to decrease farmer’s sales?
When we speak about the middleman, we’re not trying to implement a rule that they must be removed from the supply chain. We’re looking at them to point to at a problem that often comes up. If you think about a product from the point where it comes from the ground to the point where it’s consumed, there are many intermediaries [middlepersons] at either end. When you have many intermediaries, money will be removed and put into the hands of companies shipping out products. So, if I’m a farmer selling a product and there’s only one person or intermediary between me and that consumer, then in principle, there’s a greater likelihood that I, the farmer, will get a greater share of money. There’s another important thing to think about: power. It’s not just a question of how many people there are between the producer and the buyer. It also has to do with who has the power to determine who gets how much money. So you can have a supply chain with just three people in it, and one person can balance the funds equally. We [Fairtrade Canada] want to increase the likelihood that more resources will flow back to the farmer and to level out the playing field to give farmers a chance.

Do you think that artisans and farmers who participate in Fair Trade are less likely to be marginalized, when we can see how Fair Trade is influencing business dealings in the world?
It’s a difficult question to answer. All [Fair Trade] products are coming from small scale farmers and when they get their products certified, it has benefits for them. Whether or not they’re less likely to get exploited in the trade relationship, it tends to depend on the percentage of Fair Trade certified products they’re able to sell. Coffee is by far, the most commonly understood Fair Trade certified product you’ll find in Canada. But, on average, coffee co-operatives are only selling about a third of certified [Fair Trade] coffee. What that means, is that there’s a large percentage of their coffee that isn’t managed by Fair Trade… that’s why this question is difficult. The important thing is that what we’re doing is providing a structure for the co-operatives themselves to flourish. A quick example is twenty-five years ago all cocoa in the Dominican Republic was controlled by five rich families. But a small scale co-operative of farmers challenged this, and they now control over twenty-five percent of the region’s cocoa. So as a result, they have become important and there’s a structure for farmers to be powerful.

The key thing is to understand is that it’s [Fair Trade’s mission] about allowing farmer’s to become powerful above and beyond Fair Trade and certified products. The relationship to people here in Canada is that we’re supporting them, and not in a charitable manner with donations, but by making smart choices. We may be paying a bit more for those smart choices but they support all these transformative things that are happening out there in the world.

See the interview here: http://markermagazine.com/smart-choices-an-interview-with-fair-trade-canadas-michael-zelmer/