Elizabeth Amphiah and Emma Myers create fabrics in Ghana for clothing sold in Minnesota through the Fair Trade business, Global Mamas. Photo courtesy of Kristin Johnson.
Elizabeth Amphiah and Emma Myers create fabrics in Ghana for clothing sold in Minnesota through the Fair Trade business, Global Mamas. Photo courtesy of Kristin Johnson.
Elizabeth Ampiah and Emma Myers are best friends. In fact, those who know them well call them Eli-Emma and refer to them as if they are one. Eli-Emma live in Ghana outside the capital city of Cape Coast, where together they own a small textile business. They dye fabrics by hand, stamp patterns onto cloth using a traditional method called batik, then sew the decorated fabrics into clothes. Eli-Emma are so busy and successful that they've taken on several young women as apprentices and are able to afford to build their own homes (next door to each other), as well as send their own children, their nieces and nephews to school.

While part of Eli-Emma's success can be credited to their hard work, it is also dependent on a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization called Global Mamas. Global Mamas imports Eli-Emma's wares to the United States, and distributes them to more than 150 fair-trade-conscious retailers. In 2005 and 2006, Eli-Emma earned 40 percent revenue on their goods after expenses.

Global Mamas Ghana connection
Kristin Johnson runs Global Mamas' U.S. operations from a northeast Minneapolis warehouse. As a Peace Corps volunteer, Johnson spent four years in Ghana during the early 1990s fostering small business development. She met Eli-Emma there. "Eli-Emma kept getting evicted," Johnson said. "They kept trying to do batik in the courtyards of Emma's buildings. The neighbors would complain, the landlord wouldn't like it, and she'd get evicted."

After returning to the U.S., Johnson and fellow Peace Corps alum Ranae Adam returned to Ghana several times to visit the women they'd befriended. They found their batik artist friends continually struggling to get sizable orders, and when they did, to collect their bills. Finally, Johnson and Adam decided to help their friends by introducing their products to a new market, a large market, a paying market: the United States.

Eli-Emma aren't the only Ghanaian women Global Mamas have helped break the cycle of poverty and evictions. The organization started in 2003 with six batik artists making items for distribution in the United States. Now, just four years later, more than 20 women are making products for Global Mamas and the organization has expanded its product line to take in bead makers. "Global Mamas is transforming lives. We are taking the poorest women in Cape Coast and bringing them solidly into the middle class. Now they have stability to their lives and businesses," Johnson said. "The dignity, the confidence, the pride that comes from being able to provide for their families is ... " Johnson trailed off, unable to find the words capable of expressing her thoughts.

The nonprofit Global Mamas has earned approval from the Fair Trade Federation (FTF), a nonpolitical association based in Washington, D.C., that connects low-income producers in developing nations with high-income consumer markets and outlines international fair trade practices. American consumers often associate fair trade with coffee beans and know the concept ensures an appropriate wage for producers. Yet FTF deals with more than coffee and stipulates more than pay, such as educational opportunities and safety issues.

Women and fair trade
Johnson has found the world of fair trade to be pleasant and friendly. "Anyone who works in fair trade has an emotional commitment to the work," she said. "This whole movement is amazing to me. I share insurance and wholesale tips with my competitors and they do the same for me." Such open sharing of resources would rarely happen in the private sector, Johnson noted, yet she stopped short of saying the fair-trade industry is monopolized by women. Many women are drawn into the industry because it allows them to express their compassion in a productive way, but the world of fair trade pulls from both genders.

However, women are more greatly impacted by fair trade than men, claims the Citizens Trade Campaign (CTC), based in Washington D.C. The CTC was founded in 1992 in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which eliminated tariffs on goods moving across North American borders. The CTC advocates fair trade, not free trade, and lobbies members of Congress to support fair-trade agreements. It has offices in 10 states, including California, Texas and Minnesota. Alicia Ranney coordinates the Minnesota branch, called the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition.

American women, she said, have borne the brunt of NAFTA.

"The American textile industry has been almost completely obliterated by free trade," Ranney said. "The majority of American textile workers are women." She pointed to CTC materials reporting that 58 percent of apparel and textile workers in the United States are women. Of the textile jobs that have been lost since NAFTA went into effect, 74 percent of those jobs had belonged to women. Many female textile workers who lost their manufacturing positions ended up in retail jobs, which pay significantly less. According to the CTC, textile jobs pay 64 percent more than a retail position.

Free trade or fair trade?
Of course, NAFTA has affected more than the average American female textile worker. Mexico's textile maquiladoras (factories that produce goods using duty-free and tariff- free imported materials, then export the finished goods to the country that provided the materials) are staffed by Mexican women earning less than their American counterparts. Even though their positions are low paying, Mexican female maquiladora workers are starting to worry about their job security. Since NAFTA was enacted, the United States has gone on to create free-trade agreements with other countries, countries where the standard of living is even lower and labor is even cheaper, such as China. The maquiladoras are packing up and leaving Mexico for Asia. "NAFTA's losers are becoming more and more abundant," Ranney said. "Free trade creates a race to find ever cheaper and cheaper labor. It's a race to the bottom, but what's at the bottom?" She asked, then answered her own question with one word: "Slavery."

Fair trade goes beyond goods
Erik Esse is president of the Local Fair Trade Network, an organization based in Minneapolis that connects regional growers, co-ops and consumers who want to practice fair trade within their own communities. "Our farm workers here in the Midwest face the same problems farm workers face in other countries," Esse said; fruit pickers are exposed to potent amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. During harvest time, farm workers put in long hours without breaks using heavy and sharp machinery. Increasingly, they are undocumented immigrants willing to accept lower pay in exchange for a job. Many of them have no legal recourse if their employer chooses not to pay up at the end of the day.

American consumers have become increasingly conscious of organic food labels, Esse said. Yet, he cautioned, organic labels only reflect a food's chemical input. It does not gauge whether or not that food was grown and picked by fairly paid farm workers. For this reason, the Local Fair Trade Network created and launched a new label that identifies local foods produced with fair trade practices. The new label was unveiled in July and can be found on produce at the Seward Co-op in Minneapolis and the Bluff Country Co-op in Winona.

Minnesota business people like Kristin Johnson and Marti Markus, co-owner of Minneapolis' Birch Clothing, are in the planning stages of creating the Minnesota Fair Trade Association, which will work to educate Minnesotans about fair trade and encourage its practice throughout the state. Markus believes the time is right for the Minnesota Fair Trade Association. She uses her own business as an example: In just two years' time, Birch Clothing has built a strong base of customers eager to support fair trade and sustainable practices. Education, she believes, is key.

"When people hear fair trade, they tend to think of faraway places. I like to use the phrase 'fair made,'" Markus said. "Just because something was made in the U.S. doesn't guarantee it was fairly made. Minimum wage is not a fair wage.

"I don't think people are aware how much child labor goes on around the world ... if [they] looked at their own child and asked themselves what they envision for [her] future, then we could start to create some empathy for what it means when a $12 article goes on sale for $5. Who's losing that $7? It's not the company," she said. Markus can't help but wonder what would happen if factory workers in foreign countries were paid a decent, living wage.

She hopes that young people will provide leadership in growing fair trade. She related an experience she had at the Eco Experience, a Minnesota event Markus called the largest, best-attended event of its kind in the country. "There was one girl, she was 12 or 13, who saw us there ... she had her mom bring her to the store and bought her entire fall wardrobe from us. It's girls like that, it's her generation, that will lead the change."


Want to get involved in fair trade issues?
• Currently, the U.S. is negotiating free-trade agreements with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea. Voice your preference for fair-trade agreements to your U.S. representatives. Visit www.house.gov and www.senate.gov to locate your representatives and their contact information.

• If you'd like to get politically involved in fair-trade issues on the national and international level, visit the Citizens Trade Campaign web site: www.citizenstrade.org.

• To get involved in fair-trade issues closer to home, visit the Local Fair Trade Network at www.localfairtrade.org.

• When shopping for fairly traded goods, look for the Fair Trade Federation symbol which outlines international fair-trade standards.

• It's equally important to support small businesses, growers and artisans working within your own community. The Seward Co-op in Minneapolis and the Bluff Country Co-op in Winona will carry produce sporting the Local Fair Trade Network's new local fair-trade label.

• Volunteers help staff St. Paul's Ten Thousand Villages handicraft store. The next orientation session for volunteers is Oct. 9, 6:30-8 p.m. Places must be reserved and fill quickly. Call 651-225-1043.

For further information
Support fair trade and local women at the same time. The following organizations were founded, or are run by, area women working in fair trade:
Amias Project, www.amias.org
Birch Clothing, www.birchclothing.com
Etica Fair Trade Wine, www.eticafairtrade.com
Global Mamas, www.globalmamas.org
Hope Multipurpose, Inc., www.hopemultipurpose.org
North Country Fair Trade, www.ethicalgoods.org
Ten Thousand Villages, stpaul.tenthousandvillages.com