This is a guest post written by CFT volunteer Anne Debertin. All photos were also taken by Ann Debertin.
On a mild January afternoon, I joined 20 students from Chicago-area Universities in the cozy Greenheart Center basement for an afternoon of discussion about how we can contribute to the fair trade movement as consumers, advocates, and students. Students often charge in pursuit of their degree with blinders to the surrounding world, gunning for the top job in the industry, but this summit brought together a community of students who had refused these blinders and instead use their positions as students, consumers, and activists to interact constructively with the world. Through collaborative, lively conversation, we shared our struggles and successes in advocating for fair trade certification and engaging our fellow students. We also enjoyed a scrumptious desert of fair trade banana splits, generously provided by Chicago Fair Trade.
As students in a fair trade city, we stand in a fortunate position with immense potential. Universities are forced to respond to the interests of its students, as they depend on our tuition today and our donations in the future. We might pay for shiny new science buildings in ten years, cheer on the football team as committed season ticket holders, and promote the university to our own children. Furthermore, in an increasingly socially conscious world, Fair Trade certification provides bragging-rights for the university to recruit applicants and donors alike. Thus, our respective colleges have a vested interest in our satisfaction with our college experience. We capitalize on this interest to advocate for a shift towards fair trade apparel in the bookstores, coffee and tea in campus outlets, and a shifted focus overall by administrators in their decision-making. Amplifying our already-advantaged position, the Chicago-area universities have banded together to support each other in our missions by offering advice, feedback, and support. By promoting fair trade together, our mission will certainly radiate beyond the colleges, as students become aware of their power as consumers and advocates.
Our campaigns are not only presented before university-faculty, but also before students in zealous pursuit of knowledge. Students are very receptive to messages of social justice, willing to engage in the cause, and eager to learn. As student leaders, our challenge is to engage our peers, and we discussed effective strategies to meaningfully engage others. Free ice cream, anyone? Unfortunately, the fair trade movement is often mis-construed by college students as a rich-man’s effort, with many fair trade items priced slightly higher than conventional products. As students, though, strive to remedy this perspective by educating others about the reasons and benefits of these higher prices, and how the movement extends beyond simply shifting purchasing habits to utilizing the power of advocacy.
Specifically, we are also advocating for the distribution of fair trade-certified bananas in the Midwest. Working together with Equal Exchange and other fair trade campaigns, we will strive to build a demand for fair trade bananas here in the Midwest. The banana industry has been a nefarious one for decades, with large corporations oppressing the rights of farmers and their families by artificially suppressing prices, polluting their land and ground water, outlawing labor unions, and more. These same multinationals have continuously sold bananas at artificially low prices for the past 100 years. Consequently, U.S. consumers, stores, importers, and other stakeholders view bananas as a “cheap fruit,” further decreasing the price paid to the banana farmers themselves. As motivated students, we are utilizing this issue as a springboard for change. By advocating for the supply of fair trade bananas that provide for a sustainable, fulfilling lifestyle for the farmers, we also advocate for a larger message: as consumers, we have the power to promote the welfare of farmers and workers across the world.
To learn more about the banana movement and industry, I would highly recommend the web-interactive documentary Beyond The Seal (by Northwestern alumni Leah Varjacques and Katherine Nagasawa).