Fair Trade USA fights poverty through business


Thomas Allison

Dale Smith admires a mirror decorated with magazine pages from Indonesia in the window of 10,000 Villages on South Congress Tuesday afternoon.

Sylvia Butanda

With a one-way ticket to Nicaragua, Paul Rice left the U.S. fresh out of college with the mentality that he could change the world. Now 29 years later, he is the founder and CEO of Fair Trade USA.

Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization with a mission to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development around the world through partnership with businesses and more direct trade. Rice presented an overview of the company and its goals at the Global Civil Society Speaker Series, an event hosted by assistant public affairs professor Joshua Busby of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service.

Rice said his 11 years in Nicaragua working alongside farmers led him to discover the idea of a fair trade market.

“I worked on several projects funded by well-intentioned aid agencies,” Rice said. “Out of that experience I came to believe aid doesn't help farming communities develop their own capacity to solve their own problems.”

After adopting a fair trade philosophy in 1990, Rice organized Nicaragua's first fair trade coffee co-op. Rice founded Fair Trade USA in 1998.

“Fair trade was big in Europe, so it was my calling to come back here and plant the seed and see if I can get fair trade going in the States,” he said.

Rice said the company initiated a program last year, Fair Trade for All, which is estimated to double the impact of the company's mission by 2015.

“We want to deepen the meaning of fair trade,” Rice said. “In the past, fair trade was about transaction and the price. We want to enhance that core value proposition we offer to farmers with an array of other services and support to make sure farming communities thrive.”

In 2011, Fair Trade USA began Fair Trade Universities where students form committees to initiate the selling of fair trade products on campuses. UT-Austin is not on the map yet as a fair trade campus but should be because of the large number of students that can make a difference, Rice said.

“A school this big goes through so much coffee, tea, chocolate and other products that the impact would be huge,” he said.

Austin's fair trade market includes the South Congress Avenue shop Ten Thousand Villages, which carries handmade artisan-crafted products — a proponent for inspiring Austinites to support fair trade, said the store’s volunteer coordinator Alice May Berthelsen.

In addition to Ten Thousand Villages, Austin has several other locations that are fair trade product carriers, including the Austin-based Fortune 500 supermarket chain Whole Foods Market, which is the top retailer of Fair Trade products in the country, Rice said.

In 2009, Fair Trade USA started Fair Trade Towns USA where ordinary people in their communities began spreading the word about fair trade products to the businesses in town, he said.

There are currently 26 declared Fair Trade Towns in the country and Austin is one of the 100 cities that are in the process of becoming one, Rice said.

In order for the city to be an active Fair Trade town, Austin needs one more step, said William Goldsmith, the national coordinator for Fair Trade Towns USA.

“The final item is to pass a Fair Trade Resolution that should reflect an intention of the municipality to use and serve Fair Trade products by city government and for city functions,” Goldsmith said.