Wake up and smell the (ethical) Coffee

A look inside St. John’s Fair Trade movement

Jeremy Ashton, Staff Writer

What if you could change the world simply by buying a cup of coffee?

Standing in front of DAC on a humid Tuesday afternoon, I asked students what I should do to try and end poverty. Some suggested I stage an event or protest, others thought I should donate my time or money to a charity and others advised using petitions and lobbying governmental officials. Although all are valid and worthwhile ideas, the responses show that most of us see making change as a massive task requiring huge commitments of time or money. This makes it easy to be apathetic and take a non-active role. But, the reality is, even inaction is an action and you are supporting inequality by default.

“We don’t just vote every couple years in a booth. We vote every day, consciously or unconsciously, every time we get out our purses and wallets to buy something,” explains English Professor, Sean Murray, who is the head of St. John’s Fair Trade Steering committee. He goes on, “College campuses are part of the consumer culture we live in. We are all constantly buying stuff on campus. But, in our consumer-driven society, we don’t know the conditions products were made in. We don’t know the ethics behind what we are buying.”

Murray’s students agree, “Being unable to buy goods on campus that reflects the ethical standards of a Vincentian University is a weakness within our community,” explains senior Emily Santoro, “By sourcing our materials ethically, we are not only supporting communities in need, but also helping to build a better and bigger globally community, not just St. John’s.”

Our University declares in its own mission statement, “Wherever possible, 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.” Fair Trade products are a way to reach this goal as they help create greater equity within the unfair realities of the modern economy. Their goal aligns naturally with the mission of St. John’s University as a Vincentian, Metropolitan and Global University.

“Slavery still exists today, unfortunately, and we, as Americans, support that reality when we buy from companies using unfair and unethical labor practices,” junior Stefani Castorena explained. This reality didn’t sit well with Castorena as a president of St. John’s chapter of Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian aid organization.

Together, with support of Campus Ministry, Castorena and several students partner with the Fair Trade Steering Committee to support bringing Fair Trade to SJU. According to Castorena, the partnership works because “human dignity is what we are all about as an organization, and Fair Trade is something we can directly help other countries with by making sure that these workers are getting paid at a decent wage.”

One of the Movement’s biggest goals is to make St. John’s University an official Fair Trade campus. This process involves the University to reach five benchmarks and be vetted by the non-profit Fair Trade Campaigns before achieving the title. The recent success of nearby Manhattan College achieving Fair Trade status and fellow Vincentian institution, DePaul University, commiting to become a Fair Trade campus, gives many supporters hope. “It’s a long process, but if we gain enough attention and support, I this will be a very successful movement,” explains Santoro.

In order to be successful, Santoro also states, “We need students from all across St. John’s University. Fair Trade really ties into every major, from business, science, economics, education, everyone.”

Castorena echoes the need for greater student involvement, “It’s just a good thing to get on board with. If you want to help others, help humankind and encourage human equality locally and globally, you should support fair trade.” Professor Murray agrees, extending an open invitation to students looking to add their voices to the Fair Trade Steering Committee.

Professor Murray thinks, “St. John’s is doing awesome work in so many other social justice categories that I think we’re ready to take this on as well.”

Interested students can check Friday Trade Fridays at DAC from 12:30-2:30pm in front of the DAC Starbucks to learn more about the movement and purchase ethical products. You can also email [email protected] and “like” St. John’s for Fair Trade on Facebook to learn more and get involved.

A simple action you can take right now? Professor Murray suggests that next time you’re at the DAC Starbucks, ask for their Italian Dark Roast. Murray says, “If they don’t have it, explain you’d like it to be offered, as it is their certified Fair Trade blend.”

Together, we can all vote with our dollars to create a small change for the better.