Helping merchants work with dignity and pride

Nitsa believes so strongly in what she does that she would do it for free. And most people in the store do just that. The Altromercato store in Syntagma is staffed largely by volunteers who put in a couple of hours a week to help consumers who are getting acquainted with an economic philosophy which in most countries began back in 1960. The roots of fair trade can be traced to the churches of South America and to Europe at the end of 1940. After that, the Netherlands adopted it as an answer to the precipitous drop in coffee prices. There, in 1988, fair trade products began to be registered. The trend continued to grow until it finally reached Greece. At the new Fair Trade Hellas store near Syntagma, people are curious to check out the selection of products. A young woman offers samples of guaranito, a Brazilian soft drink made from guarana extract. Brazilians drink a version called «guarana soda.» Both drinks are dark in color and have a sweet, spicy flavor that vaguely resembles cola drinks but without the caffeine. According to CTM Altromercato, 97 percent of the ingredients for guaranito come through fair trade. Guaranito is made through an exclusive recipe that CTM developed with the Conselho Geral da tribo Satere-Mawe, a tribe which knows a great deal about guarana, a tropical berry that grows in the Amazon region. Everything in the store (the clothes, the wooden jewelry, the small pieces of furniture, the pasta, coffee and beverages) comes from small producers who needed the encouragement fair trade offers so they could live a respectable life and have the opportunity to learn new things. None of this would have happened in Greece without Marina Sarli, an Italian who moved to Greece seven years ago as part of an EU volunteer program. After a painful, years-long process of obtaining a license in Greece to operate a non-profit organization and applying for a loan to run the new business, Sarli opened the Fair Trade Hellas shop in March with Gerasimos Kouvaras, director of Amnesty International in Greece, and Costas Varvias, founder of the Bridge of Friendship organization. The CTM network gets in touch with producers and provides Fair Trade Hellas with the products, which have been stamped and approved as fair trade items. «Each product must be checked to make sure it isn’t the result of child labor, that it has not hurt the environment, that it was made under decent labor conditions and that is provides security to the workers,» Sarli said. That way, she says, everyone is happy. But is everything so rosy? Fair Trade has taken hits from all sides, including partisans of free trade, who say fair trade ruins regional production by forcing prices to rise. Politicians in the United States evoke fair trade in order to attract voters. Meanwhile, the lion’s share of publicity is being claimed not by small fair trade non-profits but by multinationals that want to get into the fair trade game. The Body Shop was the first large company which organized a section based on the principles of fair trade. Now Starbucks and Nestle have also developed so-called fair trade programs within their companies but without changing the overall process of production in the rest of the operation. «All those who are involved with fair trade see that this is the free market’s response and a lifeline for the victims of unfettered capitalism,» Sarli said. «We are not some leftist organization. It is a fact that globally things are not balanced. The rich are getting richer and pretty soon they won’t have anyone to do business with.» Fair Trade Hellas lives by this principle but the store at Syntagma is also a pleasant place to spend the day. You can sip some coffee from Mexico or some tea from Sri Lanka. It’s also fun to watch what kinds of people are browsing the store’s products. There are a few from the tony neighborhood of Kolonaki, who decided to stop by and check out the latest store. Others are dressed-up yuppies who want to do a good deed. Students from Rethymnon, Crete, were also lingering in the store when we visited and told us they plan to put up fair trade posters back home. Some buy fair trade products because they don’t want to buy something made under shady circumstances. Others buy the items because they believe the prices are totally fair. And some support fair trade because they just want to fight globalism as hard as they can.

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