Can St. John’s become a fair trade university?

Abigail Titus and Paolo Tagatac, Special to the Torch

A reaction or question consumers ask themselves in coffeehouses and groceries stores around the country is “Fair trade? What is fair trade?” Even here at St. John’s, a university rooted in Vincentian values, many students, faculty and employees are unaware of the fair trade movement that is directed towards creating a more dignified market for all, according to a recent survey. Furthermore, the university has not taken steps to supply certified products or officially commit to obtaining the status of a Fair Trade university.

According to the World Fair Trade Organization, this effort “seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.”

Therefore, its primary benefactors are the vulnerable farmers, artisans and workers in less industrialized countries. These people, according to Fair Trade Resource Network, are compensated by a living wage and a premium. Premium is compensation because “this sum of money goes into a communal fund for the farmers and workers to use–as they see fit–to improve their social, economic and environmental conditions.”

Of the 20 St. John’s University students and faculty that we surveyed, only 11 are able to partially describe Fair Trade the way World Fair Trade Organization and Fair Trade Resource Network have. Of which, three indicated that farmers work in a safe working condition and receive a living wage; eight described Fair Trade as simply “no child labor,” “without middlemen” and “living wage.”

We also received emails from individuals like Leonard Breton, associate director of community development, fraternity and sorority life advisor who chose not to complete the survey stating, “I do not know what Fair Trade is and I am not a coffee drinker.”

Fair Trade’s definition and the movement at large seems to align perfectly with the mission of St. John’s University, which states in part, “we devote our intellectual and physical resources to search out the causes of poverty and social injustice and to encourage solutions which are adaptable, effective and concrete.”

If this is so, why hasn’t St. John’s officially committed to supporting and using Fair Trade branded products? Dana Gouldthorpe, a department assistant at the Registrar’s Office feels that “it’s because of the amount of time and funding” it will need. To do so, she adds, will require the involvement of the student community as they will “be the ones buying [the] majority of the products.”

The survey showed that there is a clear demand to see more Fair Trade products around our campus like clothing, fruits, chocolate, school supplies and St. John’s apparel. Fatema Tahiri, a graduate student in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program even wants Fair Trade sugar used in the food served at St. John’s.

Despite its almost 30 years of existence, many still do not know about Fair Trade. This is unfortunate because Fair Trade’s marketing, according to Fair Trade World, “is driven by consumer education and advocacy that leads to socially responsible business innovations.”

Good thing for St. John’s community, Professor Sean Murray and a student, Emily Santoro, started a Fair Trade Steering Committee at the end of the spring 2015 semester aimed at identifying and centralizing efforts to educate and made us aware about Fair Trade. With the help of Lynn Stravino, director of Academic Service Learning, Professors Megan Clark and Anne Galvin and students like Stefani Castorena, to name a few of its members, St. John’s may one day be a Fair Trade university.