People in Third World countries have many of the same hopes, dreams and ambitions folks in more developed nations have. Certainly they want a secure home, enough to eat, a good education, a chance to better themselves.
Kelly McGee, owner of Marie Josephine — A Mercantile Company, at 1304 Adams Ave., helps by offering handcrafted “Fair Trade” items made in places as far away as India and Peru.
“It’s important to me, because I feel like I’m helping out in the way I know how, by buying and selling,” McGee said.McGee started her business in May 2000 in a retail space at 1111 Depot St. When she made the move to her current location this winter, she decided to place some new emphasis on her product line.
McGee has always supported local artists and crafts people, offering items made in Union and Wallowa counties and throughout the Pacific Northwest. She continues to do so.
But when she relocated her store, she increased her stock of sustainable and eco-friendly products. Most of them fall in the category of Fair Trade goods.
“It’s not a fad. It’s been going on a long time,” McGee said. “Fair Trade means artisans from small villages are getting a livable wage.”
The Fair Trade movement has become increasingly organized in recent years. Numerous networks have formed in the United States and elsewhere for the purpose of improving the lives of workers in developing nations.
The networks provide workers with direct access to world markets. They also work to ensure that participating communities are taking proper care of the environment.
The movement has a bona fide representative in La Grande in the person of Carole Halvorson, a volunteer who works hard to spread the word about Fair Trade and to get people to try and buy Fair Trade goods.
“I provide education and facilitate business with Fair Trade organizations,” Halvorson said.
Halvorson, who works as a nurse practitioner at the Center for Human Development, has been involved in the movement about 25 years.
She said she became interested after learning about poverty in the coffee-producing countries of Africa and Central America.
“Coffee is a Third World product made for First World consumption. If the producers have a bad year, they can’t eat the crop,” she said.
Halvorson became involved with Lutheran World Relief, a church organization that partners with Fair Trade groups from around the world. Her focus has mainly been on the coffee, tea and chocolate trades.
Her local group, the Zion Lutheran Church Women, sells the Fair Trade version of those products to fellow church members year around. The products also are sold at church bazaars at Christmas and during La Grande’s annual Crazy Days celebration.
Halvorson spreads the Fair Trade word wherever she goes. Though she doesn’t take credit for it, she is proud to say that two local businesses besides McGee’s — Nature’s Pantry and Highway 30 Coffee Co. — carry Fair Trade goods.
Now, she and McGee are working together to put items handcrafted in impoverished nations before Union County buyers.
Browsing through McGee’s shop, one is likely to find a flute from Bolivia, a stuffed toy from India, gloves from Peru, birdhouses from El Salvador, scarves from Indonesia, Bangladesh and India, and plenty more.
“We have a lot of things from India, where there is a high number of impoverished widows,” Halvorson said.
Many of the products sold at Marie Josephine are made of bamboo and teak, materials McGee terms “sustainable.”
That’s important to her. She said that whenever she finds a new resource for Fair Trade goods, she checks with the consumer group Green America to determine environmental practices and policies.
In the long run, the Fair Trade movement does more than put money in the pockets of individual artisans, said Halvorson.
Whole communities benefit in improved infrastructure, more access to education, a higher level of social and economic justice.
“Once you learn about Fair Trade, it’s hard to go back to buying things you know were made in a sweatshop,” Halvorson said.