Changing the world, one shopping cart at a time
Thursday, March 30, 2006
By CECELIA GOODNOW
There's a telling scene in the documentary "Buyer Be Fair" in which various Home Depot customers try to define "certified wood."
Customer No. 1: "Well, I know it is treated with chemicals so that it stands up for a long time ..."
Customer No. 2: "I worked with wood for my whole life and I've never heard the term 'certified' ..."
Customer No. 3: "It's probably a good grade of wood ..."
Sorry, that is incorrect.
As any do-it-yourselfer in Amsterdam knows, certification means the lumber was grown and harvested responsibly, with oversight by the independent Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, and labeled as such.
"I think it's well-known here in Holland," says one shopper in the film.
Another says, "I will pay extra for it. I do; I do pay extra for it."
It's not surprising that Dutch consumers are hip to the FSC label. Fair Trade certification, most commonly associated with coffee, began in the Netherlands two decades ago. Now, more than nine in 10 Dutch shoppers know what the Fair Trade label means and they look for it when they shop.
So do many other Europeans. As "Buyer Be Fair" points out, Bonn, Germany, is the world headquarters of the Fair Trade parent organization and FSC. Both are big players in the fast-growing product-labeling movement, designed to help shoppers identify independently certified global goods they can buy without cramping their conscience.
In their hourlong documentary premiering tonight on KCTS/9, Seattle-based producers John de Graaf and Hana Jindrova try to bring U.S. shoppers up to speed by showing how individual purchases affect the larger world.
"What you choose to put in your shopping basket has global implications," they note in the Take Action section of their accompanying Web site, buyerbefair.org, which was due to be up and running today. "It can determine whether a child is able to attend school or an endangered rain forest is logged. Certified products ensure that you know what your purchases are supporting."
Today you can find items from bananas to chocolates to soccer balls bearing the Fair Trade label -- if you're willing to do some legwork.
The standards are enforced by independent groups in 20 countries -- most of them in Europe -- and every country certifies a somewhat different array of goods.
TransFair USA, the only independent certifier in the United States, certifies only coffee, cocoa, tea, rice, sugar and some fresh fruits. So if you want a Fair Trade Certified soccer ball, you'll have to search online for a product that has been certified in another country, such as Canada.
On the other hand, if you're looking for Fair Trade Certified chocolate for your kids' Easter basket, the TransFair USA link is helpful. There's even a source in Seattle: Theo Chocolate, no address listed, only a phone number. We called and found it's at 3400 Phinney Ave. N. and is open for retail business on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (You also can find Theo bars at Ballard Market.)
Although more certified products are available, the "Buyer Be Fair" documentary focuses mainly on coffee and wood because those products pack such a wallop in the marketplace.
"Coffee and timber are two of the three top-selling trade goods," de Graaf said in an interview .
Oil is No. 1, but, as Jindrova added ruefully, there is no certification program for socially and environmentally responsible oil production.
Product certification is a frustratingly complex field, and the documentary won't automatically put guilt-free products at your fingertips. But, as viewers will see with the Home Depot shoppers, raising awareness is a good place to start.
"Our point," Jindrova said, "is just to get people thinking about where their products come from and if they can shape the market in a positive way."
If that sounds like feel-good hoo-ha, watch as "Buyer Be Fair" pans across deserted coffee plantations in Oaxaca, Mexico -- casualties of a free-fall in world coffee prices caused by cheap Vietnamese and Brazilian beans flooding the market.
At the Alemania plantation, once a busy community with a city hall and painted church, all that remains are decaying buildings and sinkfuls of unwashed dishes.
"So what do coffee farmers do?" asks ecologist Beatriz Avalos. "Either they abandon their land and go somewhere else looking for a job -- Mexico City or even the United States -- or they start clear-cutting ... to grow maize, beans for subsistence cattle, you name it."
Apart from the environmental harm, she said, the ripple effects will leave people with "nothing to lose," creating social and political instability.
Yikes! We don't want that bitter aftertaste in our morning jolt of java. What can we do?
There are some good leads in the links at buyerbefair.org, including help locating Fair Trade coffee. Still, there's no such thing as one-stop shopping for consumers who want to buy right.
"To be a conscious consumer," said de Graaf, "you do have to do a little thinking. These labels make it a little easier."
The documentary does spotlight a few laudable retail efforts:
One of the most interesting links at buyerbefair.org is Green-e, which certifies that participating power companies produce a certain percentage of electricity from sustainable sources such as geothermal or wind power.
Consumers who want to participate pay a premium -- the national average is $6 per month -- to specify what percentage of "their" power they want from sustainable sources. In reality, electricity from all sources gets mixed together, so what the consumer is really doing is supporting the utility's overall reliance on sustainable power and not necessarily receiving "green" electricity in his home.
Seattle City Light and Puget Sound Energy offer similar programs, though they aren't certified by Green-e. Again, it's up to the consumer to search the utilities' Web pages -- or the Green-e site -- for the formidable details.
"It's confusing," Green-e's Keri Bolding told the P-I, "and most people just don't want to know where their electricity comes from. ... It's hard for a consumer to just get it in a sound bite and then want to spend money on it."
In time, shoppers should feel more comfortable with the various certification labels, said Nicole Chettero at TransFair USA.
"It's an emerging field," she said in an interview. "There's a lot of consumer education (to do)."
Ultimately, Jindrova and de Graaf hope certifiers work themselves out of jobs by making fair-trade and sustainable products business-as-usual.
Until then, it's up to each shopper to carry the day.
"Any difference matters," Jindrova said. "Every single purchase. It just brings us closer to a better world."
P-I reporter Cecelia Goodnow can be reached at 206-448-8353 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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