So my professor suggested a rewrite of my original op-ed to be a little more focused. So I ended up writing an article about Fair Trade, surprise, surprise. HA! Here it is.
Sometimes one plane ride can change the course of your entire life. In 2006 my life changed after a vacation to India, for two weeks, over Thanksgiving.
From the moment I stepped off the plane in New Delhi, the smells, the sights, and the stark contrasts infiltrated my senses.
I saw so many things in those weeks: a sherbet colored sunset over the centuries-old castle at Fatehpur Skiri, beautifully crafted art at the Dilli Haat, people full of life and joy, and then, a dead body lying in the streets, a child beggar who danced when given only 20 rupees (50 cents), while I brushed my teeth with bottled water in a luxurious four bedroom, five bathroom apartment.
There, I told beggars, as is recommended, “I’m sorry; I only give to organizations.” I wanted to keep that promise, but in a way that would make real change, not just charity. By finding a way to help people that would transform their lives forever, not just that one dancing moment.
When I returned to the US, I scoured the internet and discovered the “Fair Trade” Movement.
Fair Trade is a way of doing business which connects producers to consumers while apportioning the producer a fair share of the purchase price.
Fair Trade evens the playing field for the poorest farmers by: requiring transparency from the entire supply chain, organizing producers into democratic cooperatives, using indigenous, modern and sustainable farming practices. Fair Trade is still business, but in a more ethical way; without exploitation, with democracy and subsidiary.
Slowly, the Fair Trade movement overtook my life until, I found, I needed a merger between my work and my volunteer selves. By chance, I discovered a graduate program, at Columbia University, a Master of Science in Sustainability Management. Perfect! This would allow me reshape my business experience into a new job which included a social mission-I hoped.
Happily, I was accepted into the Fall 2012 cohort. In October, the Earth Institute held its annual State of the Planet conference. There, speakers from all over the globe connected poverty and sustainability in a way that inspired me, moved me, and reinforced my own beliefs.
At this conference, Jan Eliasson, the UN Deputy Secretary-General said we need “A strategy centered on equity — on sustainable development and human rights — on placing people and the planet first.” Over and over, the thread that the issues of sustainability, labor, and poverty are linked to each other, showed itself.
I was surprised to find that not everyone felt the same. Some of my colleagues find these challenges too overwhelming to be breached, a very few are simply bigoted and don’t bother about “those” people.
There are certainly others, who feel as I do, that ending poverty is an important component of sustainability, and that clean water is a human right, not just an environmental issue. They believe, as I do, that until we take on the deep challenges of poverty, we cannot heal the planet.
My first semester, in a sustainable water class, the final project was a study of the Bagmati River in Nepal. In the minds of many, including my group at the outset of our project, industries pollute rivers and therefore must be causing the water quality issues.
Water pollution is often measured by Biologic Oxygen Demand (BOD); the higher the BOD the less oxygen is in the water, as it’s replaced by pollutants. Less oxygen means fish and other aquatic life that still “breathe” oxygen through the water, cannot exist.
Surprisingly, we found that only 4.3% of the BOD pollution in the Bagmati River comes from industry. Actually, the greatest pollution is caused by the biologic waste of people living in shanty towns near the river, a nice way of saying that, the river is their toilet.
Here, poverty is the direct cause of the pollution, which has damaged the ecosystem, and with it the livelihoods of fishermen, creating even more poverty.
Fair Trade can provide solutions for similar pollution and poverty, by helping farmers stay on their own land, in the countryside. Besides increasing incomes, cooperative members democratically decide on how to use dues/fees: building latrines, a well, or a school, whatever is most needed.
One day I will return to India to visit a Fair Trade weaving cooperative which now makes many of the clothes in my closet. I have learned, through Fair Trade and graduate school, that each dollar spent votes for a better Earth and justice for her people. I’d like for others to learn this lesson too.