WASHINGTON -- Sipping the right kind of coffee is now a matter of conscience for the Quakers who meet in Northwest Washington, the congregants of Fairfax, Va., Presbyterian Church and the members of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Laurel, Md.
In recent months, these faith communities all decided to take a small step for global justice at their social functions by serving only "fair-trade" coffee -- coffee purchased from growers, mostly small farmers in developing countries, at a price calculated to help them work themselves out of poverty.
"I'm trying to make every aspect of my life fit into my faith commitment," said Jonathan Ottke, 35, a systems analyst who joins his fellow Quakers every Sunday at their meetinghouse. "So, for example, I've stopped buying non-fair-trade coffee whenever possible. ... If me buying coffee is helping to impoverish farmers in Central America, then I am not living according to my faith."
With concerns growing about globalized trade, faith groups across the country increasingly are connecting their java habit to their faith life by getting involved with the decades-old fair-trade movement. Last year, 5,187 congregations nationwide bought 212 tons of coffee, tea and cocoa from Equal Exchange, a Massachusetts-based organization that distributes fair-trade products, compared with the 2,895 congregations that purchased 124 tons in 2002.
The fair-trade movement, which began in the 1940s, is a global coalition of laborers, purchasers, relief agencies and human rights groups that aims to raise the standard of living for agricultural workers and artisans in developing countries by ensuring that they get fair prices for their product, be it coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, carved wooden trinkets or woven baskets.
That price is always higher than the world market's prevailing price. For example, fair-trade purchasers of coffee -- a product on which 20 million people depend for their livelihood -- are paying growers $1.26 per pound, considerably more than the typical price of 65 cents a pound.
In exchange for the higher price, growers and artisans meet certain labor and environmental standards set and enforced by a fair-trade oversight group. For example, the workers' cooperatives must practice gender equity and democratic decision-making.
Rose Benz Ericson, a fair-trade activist who lives in Rochester, N.Y., has noticed the increased interest of faith groups in recent years, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As "global forces move us to a more dangerous place, we can feel very helpless," Ericson said. "Fair trade is an antidote because we can each, individually and easily, contribute to global understanding (and support) of other cultures."
Equal Exchange is waging one of the most aggressive and successful efforts to recruit faith congregations into fair-trade purchasing. The for-profit, private cooperative deals exclusively in fair-trade coffee, tea and cocoa, which it sells to supermarkets and coffee bars as well as faith groups. It sold $13 million in fair-trade products last year.
Owned and run by its 62 employees, the cooperative pays outside investors an annual dividend of 5 percent and has a lower profit margin than conventional buyers.
Erbin Crowell, interfaith program director at Equal Exchange, said the company began reaching out to faith groups in 1996 in a pilot project with Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief, the development and aid arm of several Lutheran denominations. In the first year, nearly 1,000 Lutheran parishes began buying fair-trade coffee for official functions and in some cases for resale to parishioners.
Today, Equal Exchange has active partnerships with nine denominations. A 10th, the United Church of Christ, is to start participating by the end of this month. Typically, the denominations educate their congregations, which then set up accounts with Equal Exchange.
The partnership has "resonated enormously with Lutheran churches ... because it's linked directly to our understanding of how our economic choices reflect our faith," said Sarah Ford, the Lutheran World Relief official in charge of the program.
Catholic Relief Services, which provides emergency relief and development aid around the world on behalf of the U.S. Catholic Church, joined forces in November with Equal Exchange to promote fair-trade coffee. Joan Neal, deputy executive director for U.S. operations for Catholic Relief, noted that there are 19,000 Catholic parishes across the country. "Our goal is to get 10 percent signed up and participating in this coffee project," she said. "We're trying to help Catholics live their faith in solidarity with the people we serve around the world."
Since late November, 218 parishes have opened accounts with Equal Exchange, more than all the accounts opened in the previous 12 months.
The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, a Roman Catholic order of nearly 5,000 nuns headquartered in Silver Spring, Md., opened an account with Equal Exchange in January, according to Sister Tina Geiger, a member of the order's justice team. The account allows the sisters, many of whom live in neighborhood homes, an easy way to purchase the coffee.
"We say, 'Instead of just a cup of coffee, have a just cup of coffee,'" Geiger said. As women "trying to live our lives so we don't create any more oppression ... to make sure that our cup of coffee ... is fair-trade just simply fits in with who we say we try to be."
Coffee is not the only fair-trade product attracting faith groups' attention. SERRV International, begun in 1949, partners with 27 denominations to sell fair-trade crafts from around the world. But perhaps the grandmother of church-sponsored fair-trade projects is Ten Thousand Villages, started 58 years ago by the Mennonite Central Committee, the relief and development agency of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ denominations.
Today, the nonprofit chain of 150 stores throughout North America sells handicrafts purchased under fair-trade agreements with Third World artisans. The stores took in $14.6 million in sales last year, compared with $8 million in 1999.
"I come from D.C. to shop because of the (fair-trade) concept," said Katryna Gould, who was at the Ten Thousand Villages store in Bethesda, Md., on a recent day. "You get value, and you return a fair value to the people who've made these crafts."
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