Fair trade gains momentum with fourth annual Market Day

They sell shirts: everything from basic cotton tees and hoodies to ones with smart-looking screenprints of activist-themed designs. But JustShirts is more than your run-of-the-mill consumer-oriented clothing seller. It’s a way to help workers in developing countries earn a decent living through the purchase of fair-trade products.

A Calgary- and Toronto-based collective JustShirts was created three years ago by professor Dean Neu Claudia Quintanilla and Daniel Martinez of the University of Calgary Haskayne School of Business. They wanted to help textile workers in El Salvador who were suffering after a change in international tariffs in 2005 made it cheaper for big companies to move to centralized factories in countries with lower production costs. The El Salvadoran workers mostly women were often forced to accept jobs paying as little as $4 a day under sweatshop conditions involving long hours and oppressive production quotas.

JustShirts offered an alternative by partnering directly with the workers in this case the Madres Solteras of El Salvador a producer-co-operative of single mothers trying to provide for their families. JustShirts helped the Madres by providing markets for their clothing products in North America and using a non-profit business model that ensured fair wages health and pension benefits and decent working conditions. “The premise of fair trade is that we want to make sure the people who make the products are paid fairly” says Neu.

Part of a growing movement towards ethically traded goods JustShirts is one of some 20 fair trade and local green venders participating in Fairly Traded Market Day on Saturday November 24. The event organized by CUSO and the University of Calgary is in its fourth year and according to organizer Carlos Vargas outreach co-ordinator for the University of Calgary Centre for Public Interest Accounting has grown as more people start to recognize it as an annual event. “It’s a great opportunity for the public to become aware of fair trade and what kinds of products are available” says Vargas.

This year the public will be able to see feel and buy fair-trade products ranging from clothing to handicrafts and organic foods produced by artisans farmers and textile producers from around the world. In addition to JustShirts some of the participants include: Ten Thousand Villages a not-for-profit organization that markets handicrafts made by artisans from low-income countries; Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan a volunteer solidarity network of women in Canada working to support opportunities for Afghan women and girls; and Bolivia Kids an organization that sells gift cards to raise funds for a hot lunch program in La Paz Bolivia.

The day-long market also includes multiculturally themed entertainment and food including live folk music belly dancers and dishes by EthniCity catering. Fair-trade coffee and hot chocolate are also available — attendees are encouraged to bring their own mugs.

Though Quintanilla and Neu hope to sell their share of shirts on the day they say the real importance of the event lies in the opportunity for fair-trade vendors to share with the public the stories of the women and men who make the products.

This is particularly meaningful for Quintanilla who grew up in El Salvador but had not fully appreciated the plight of the single mothers until she returned there as an adult and began speaking directly to the women working under sweatshop conditions. She is proud that JustShirts has been able to give the Madres good work and benefits often doubling or tripling their wages allowing them to spend more time with their children and enjoy a better standard of living. “That’s the type of difference we can make in people’s lives” notes Quintanilla.

Neu stresses however that fair trade is “not charity.” It’s a way for people to enjoy quality consumer goods knowing that they are coming from socially responsible sources. Moreover in addition to helping out the Madres Neu says that organizations like JustShirts provide a “positive model that [fair trade] can work.” His hope is that growing public awareness of these kind of fair-trade success stories can help pressure corporations and retailers to adopt widespread and genuine fair-trade practices.

Check out Fairly Traded Market Day November 24 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Westgate Community Hall 4943 8 Ave S.W.