Written by Emily Mullins
Fair trade products are often referred to as "the gifts that give twice." The buyer receives a one-of-a-kind, handcrafted item and a unique shopping experience, while artisans in remote parts of the world receive fair wages and the opportunity to use their skills to improve the lives of their families and communities. It’s the kind of win-win situation that Ron Ober believes is the key to ending the cycle of poverty in impoverished nations throughout the world, and says consumers can play a much bigger role in this process than they thought possible.
"But this is not charity," said Ober, president of the Ministry Leadership Council at Faith United Church of Christ in Richmond Heights, Ohio. "This is justice."
Ober is the owner of Revy Fair Trade Products, which he founded four years ago with his wife Mary, music director at Faith UCC. The Obers offer items handmade by men and women in El Salvador, such as jewelry created from clay, bamboo, coconut shells and seeds, and handbags dyed with indigo, teak, tree moss and other organic materials. Through their partnership with Revy, these artisans are guaranteed a fair wage, safe and ethical working conditions, health care and educational opportunities, and a role in the company's decision-making process. Revy also provides each individual or co-op with cash advances and prompt payments, collaboration on designs and production methods, and long-term job security.
Ober was drawn to the fair trade industry when he sold his business five years ago and decided he wanted to "do something more" with his life. With his passion for economic and social justice and his background in sales and marketing, he connected with the U.S. organizer for a social justice group in El Salvador. The group had been working to help artisans in El Salvador break into the North American market, but with little success. So during trips to the country, the Obers worked closely with artisans and artistic co-ops to help them make designs changes that would appeal to North American consumers, and Revy Fair Trade Products was born.
Ober is a member of the Fair Trade Federation, which works to strengthen and promote organizations fully committed to fair trade, and sells the products online, at fairs and festivals, and at retail gift stores. Over the past four years, Ober said, revenue has slowly, but steadily, grown.
"Globalization can be ugly, but it is a fact of life," he said. "By helping our brothers and sisters through fair trade, good can eventually come from it."
The Rev. Janet Rhodes Ross also found her calling in the fair trade business. The minister of adult faith formation for First Congregational Church of Hudson UCC in Hudson, Ohio, founded Janet Rhodes Brings You Fair Trade in 2009, and sells her products both online and in her Hudson-based store. Rhodes Ross sells items handmade from artisans in 36 countries around the world – paper beads from Uganda, eco-friendly baskets from Cambodia, chocolate from Ghana, silk scarves from Afghanistan. Like Ober, Rhodes Ross is a member of the Fair Trade Federation, and everything she sells is crafted under the protection of the World Fair Trade Organization's 10 principles of fair trade.
After facing some personal struggles, Rhodes Ross had a vision of the direction her life should take. While at the time she was unfamiliar with the concept of fair trade, she envisioned a store that sold handcrafted items from throughout the world that gave back to the artists who made them. Rhodes Ross was then a member of First Grace UCC in Akron, Ohio, and, coincidentally, the church was in the early stages of developing a fair trade store in the community and was looking for someone to lead the project. Rhodes Ross jumped at the opportunity, and soon after opened her own store.
"It was a calling that was just laid right before me, and once I got into it I began to see what a difference it makes and how it really transforms people's lives and communities," Rhodes Ross said. "In my world, I really believe that fair trade is the way we can bring holiness into the marketplace."
As the chaos of the holiday shopping season ensues, Ober and Rhodes Ross urge consumers to look beyond the big-box stores and really think about how their money is being spent. An antidote to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, fair trade establishments throughout the country are promoting Fair Tuesday on Dec. 3, to inspire conscious consumerism and show how an everyday purchase can change lives in a whole community. Rhodes Ross will offer 10-percent savings in her store that day, and six other fair trade establishments in Northeast Ohio will also offer various specials.
"I really believe that we are one human family," Rhodes Ross said. "Finding a good deal isn't a deal if it was made on the back of someone else. It matters that we consider the people who make and provide the beautiful things we get to enjoy in our homes – it means the world."
For more information about fair trade and how to get involved in this type of global advocacy, visit the UCC's Global Ministries page.