Walk into Catherine Imports in Downtown Duluth and you are immediately greeted with an array of beautiful, unique and sometimes odd products. The entire store is covered in little fairy lights and flowers, with everything bright and sparkling in an array of vivid hues. The store is dazzlingly girly, selling things like faux flowers, vintage-style wrapping paper, cards, gifts and dozens of types of tea. It has everything from the quirky, like herb snippers or onion protectors for those half-used vegetables, to the unusual, in the form of beautiful artwork and hand-made jewelry. “We always look for unique items,” said Store Manager Kelly Yetter. “We buy a lot of things through Fair Trade from other countries.”
Fair Trade began in the 1940s when a small group of North American and European organizations reached out to poor communities to help them sell their crafts to well-off markets on their own continents. Today, Fair Trade is a global effort and has become synonymous with fair wages, environmental sustainability and empowerment for workers in poverty-stricken countries.
Alakef Coffee supplies numerous coffee shops and grocery stores with Fair Trade coffee in Duluth. Fair Trade was introduced to the company as a business enterprise, as many people have become interested in organic coffee. While not all organic coffee is Fair Trade, much of it is; therefore, the demand for organic coffee has lead to more people buying Fair Trade.
Alakef believes in “sustainability” and “partnership with farmers.” They care about the welfare of the workers, even if the price is slightly higher. General Manager Roy Alexander explained that coffee can be bought at its cheapest at New York Seed price, but companies can pay a premium for Fair Trade coffee, which all goes to the farmer. This can be as much as double for some workers, Alexander said.
“We would definitely like to see the farmer paid well for the product he's producing,” Alexander said.
According to a 2005 Fair Trade report, coffee producers earn $1.26 per pound of coffee compared to an average global price of 70 cents.
Like Alexander, Yetter is definitely interested in the humanitarian side of Fair Trade. While not all products imported and sold in Catherine Imports are Fair Trade, Yetter feels they go “above and beyond as far as getting things from Fair Trade.”
“We try to keep it so we don't buy things from sweatshops,” she said.
Yetter describes Catherine Imports as an “upper-end gift, clothing and décor store”, which prides itself on its “unique pieces.” The Fair Trade aspect is a huge element of the store. They have a number of representatives located all over the world who seek out unique items to bring back. There is no middle man involved, and the reps are trusted in their knowledge of the best Fair Trade products.
“We seek out people who pay fair wages,” Yetter said.
With the current economic climate, it can be difficult to maintain high prices on unique pieces and compete with large chain stores such as Wal-Mart and Target.
“Everyone wants a good price,” Yetter said. “But you can't find anything unique in those stores.”
Alongside the unique aspect of the store’s products is the moral side. Some items were made by Haitians who have been able to make money through their craft. Some of the art work was painted by people living in mud huts in India (some of whom Catherine Ferris, the owner of the store, knows personally). Yetter hopes people will become more aware of the implications of shopping Fair Trade. These small changes can really make a difference in the lives of people from other communities, and also can help support local businesses. Catherine Imports often receives pictures and letters demonstrating the change that has been made as a result of their business.
“It's a case of being aware of how important it is to support these communities,” she said. “By supporting them at least they can feed their families.”