Early last year, two forward-thinking Colorado College students, Jess Arnsteen and Kyle Cureau, left the comfort of college life in Colorado Springs and traversed southern Mexico and Guatemala. Their goal: to gain insight into the everyday life of developing-world farmers competing in a global market.
During the two-month excursion, they were struck with inspiration to launch a socially conscious coffee-roasting company. So upon their return, Arnsteen and Cureau took entrepreneurial gamble and sought out local investors interested in fair trade. The effort has borne a tangible result, called BuyWell International.
"The look and feel of BuyWell is our experience," says Cureau. "People want to make a responsible choice, and if it means you can do that buying coffee, people love it."
More than caffeine
Fair trade, a social movement that aims to empower farmers by encouraging them to develop business skills vital in a global economy, centers on several key principles.
Direct trade: Fair trade aims to eliminate the middleman, instead allowing importers to purchase directly from producers.
Fair labor conditions: Child labor is prohibited. In addition, working conditions are safer than average.
Environmental sustainability: Fair trade prohibits farmers from using GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and agrochemicals.
Fair prices: Growers receive a guaranteed minimum floor price. Also, fair-trade organizations pay an additional premium for products that are certified organic.
Community development: Fair-trade farmers invest premiums in community projects, including training and scholarship programs.
Founded in 1998, TransFair USA is the only third-party fair-trade certifier in the United States. The company licenses more than 600 businesses including BuyWell to label agricultural products with the Fair Trade Certified brand. (Neither TransFair nor any other third party in the United States certifies non-agricultural goods.)
According to Becca Sickbert, BuyWell's communications director, coffee sales make up most of the fair-trade market in Colorado Springs. And BuyWell has local competition from at least one big name.
In October 2005, Whole Foods partnered with the Rainforest Alliance to launch its own fair-trade label (certified by TransFair). Called Whole Trade, the label can be applied to coffee as well as tea, fruit, sugar and spices.
Products that carry the Whole Trade label abide by basic fair-trade principles and are marked with a circular green label that looks almost identical to the Whole Foods label.
Why the deliberate designation between Whole Trade and Fair Trade? Although TransFair certified Whole Foods, Whole Foods prefers not to use the standard label.
"Fair Trade labeling is something we try to stay away from," says Leonard Chabiel, North Academy store team leader. "We wanted to give Fair Trade competition. We donate to Whole Planet."
More specifically, 1 percent of Whole Trade proceeds go to Whole Planet, a foundation that provides microcredit loans to farmers in the developing-world countries that supply Whole Foods. These loans are $200 or less and require no collateral or contracts. Although the principal must be repaid with interest, the money remains in the local communities to create loans for other producers.
Separately from all its work with agricultural commodities, Whole Foods like Vitamin Cottage, another local natural grocery store offers "ethically sourced" crafts and housewares through World of Good Inc. That nonprofit aims to bridge the U.S. retail market with artisan cooperatives around the globe.
Although the fair-trade market in Colorado Springs remains relatively small, Cureau insists the economic axiom regarding supply and demand holds true.
"People have the power to see fair trade anywhere. People have as much power as we do to ask for it," says Cureau. "There is no excuse. If they get enough people demanding fair trade, they will change."
If you're getting into your holiday shopping, try these local stores listed below; they offer holiday goodies that satisfy fair-trade requirements.
BuyWell International: Offering a variety of artisan-roasted coffees, including espresso.
4850 Northpark Drive, 598-7870
Piramide Natural Fibre Clothing Company: Flower-patterned sarongs from Ghana, two-toned Peruvian sweaters and striped Indian robes.
106 Cañon Ave., Manitou Springs, 685-5912
Pikes Perk Coffee & Tea House: Various flavored and unflavored gourmet coffees, both whole-bean and ground. Multiple locations.
Whole Foods: Necklaces and Sari basket bags from New Delhi, Vietnamese silk scarves, pottery from Indonesia and an array of exquisitely detailed purses and clutches from different regions around the world.
7635 N. Academy Blvd., 531-9999
Whole Foods (operating under Wild Oats name): Carries Pangea Organics facial products, lotion, hand soap and shower gel. World of Good Christmas ornaments including the "Heavenly Husk Angel," made from corn husks dried in Colombian markets.
3180 New Center Point, 622-1099
Vitamin Cottage: Offers an assortment of retail merchandise through World of Good, Inc.
1780 E. Woodmen Road, 536-9606