Christian retailers use fair-trade items to balance values, capitalismBy Jeff Kunerth
ORLANDO, Fla. — Ralph Lauren — with his made-in-China U.S. Olympic uniforms — is learning what Christian retailers heard at their annual trade show last week in Orlando, Fla.: Where and how items are made make a difference in the global economy.
Just because it’s cheaper to make American Olympic uniforms in China doesn’t make it right.
At the International Christian Retail Show, store owners learned how fair-trade products reflect their religious beliefs.
“What good is your Christian retail without considering where all this stuff is made and what system am I continuing to propagate?” said Christine Caine, founder of the A21Campaign.org, an anti-sex-trafficking ministry.
It requires thinking about — and caring about — the working conditions of men, women, boys and girls who produce those inexpensive Jesus Loves Me T-shirts, religious trinkets and Nativity scenes.
“I don’t believe we value people. We value making my dollar go as far as it can at someone else’s expense,” said Caine, 46, an Australian author and minister. “Just so you can buy something really cheap, are you going to allow somebody else on the other side of the world to go through pain and even torture?”
The fair-trade items don’t exactly fit the traditional merchandise mix of Christian bookstores and gift shops. They don’t come emblazoned with Scripture or crucifixes or images of Jesus. What they do come with is a back story of an orphaned child, a widowed woman, a girl rescued from prostitution, a boy freed from sweatshop servitude.
“Fair trade is providing a fair and living wage, good working conditions and no child or slave labor,” said Cynthia Glensgard, owner of Global Handmade Hope in Park Ridge, Ill.
Five fair-trade businesses represent only a tiny fraction of the 350 businesses at the International Christian Retailers Show at the Orange County, Fla., Convention Center, but they belong to an emerging trend within the big business of Christian retail.
Beginning this year, Family Christian Stores started selling fair-trade items online and in 26 of its 282 stores nationwide. Less than 5 percent of the company’s sales are fair-trade items, but that number is growing, said company Vice President Steve Biondo.
Family Christian Stores became interested in fair-trade products through the company’s work with orphans and widows. By working directly with the artisans, the retail chain is able to lift families out of poverty and forced labor while providing customers with unique gifts, greeting cards and clothing.
“The bottom line is the products provide a way for people to make a viable living and give them choices they haven’t had in the past,” Biondo said. “There are girls trafficked for their sex who now have a jewelry operation. Having a steady income prevents them from being taken advantage of.”
The idea of selling fair-trade products in Christian retail stores is a fairly new concept. This is the first time since the inception of the Christian Booksellers Association in 1950 that the trade association’s annual show has emphasized fair-trade products, said association Executive Director Curtis Riskey.
Providing economic stability and social justice for the poor and oppressed puts into practice the Christian values of caring for the less fortunate, Riskey said.
“Fair trade for our stores is the sweet spot in that it aligns with our mission to love one another and how we can help others around the world,” Riskey said.
But for Christian retailers to successfully market fair-trade items, customers need to know what they are buying, where it came from and who made it, Biondo said. Store staff must be trained to tell the story of the handmade merchandise, he said.
At Cynthia Glensgard’s fair-trade booth in the exhibit hall, there are necklaces and earrings made from melon seeds by a cooperative of Colombian women; cloth bags made by single women in Rwanda; greeting cards created by poor men in Kenya.
“This is a way somebody can contribute to another individual and feel good about that purchase,” Glensgard said. “It’s just basic Christian values that people need to put into place to help others care for themselves.”
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