A particular kind of holiday shopping rush took place on Sunday as hundreds of people packed St. Paul’s United Methodist Church to browse goods from around the world.
Whatever the product — a Nativity scene carved from nuts or a handbag crocheted from plastic bags — the wellbeing of its producer was part of every sales pitch at the church’s annual Fair Trade Market.
The market featured 18 vendors selling clothing, jewelry, crafts and other items meeting international fair trade standards that ensure producers in rural or impoverished areas are justly compensated.
“We’re going to spend the money anyway, but why not be mindful while we spend it?” said Al Beaver, whose large booth offered items both Israeli and Inuit.
He purchases handmade crafts through a pair of nonprofit organizations and sells them once a year at the St. Paul’s market.
Beaver said the market has grown much over its six years. He said sales among all vendors reached $30,000 last year, up from closer to $5,000 when it began.
“The people of Helena are super supportive of this kind of thing,” he said.
At a nearby booth, Mary Hensley handed out free samples of gourmet sticky rice. The rice comes from mountain terrace fields in the Philippines and is raised by indigenous farmers.
Hensley sells it under a brand she created, Eighth Wonder, named for the terraces’ designation by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
She first encountered the terrace communities while working in the Peace Corps several decades ago. Some 27 years later, as the economic and cultural pressure on those communities increased, Hensley said she returned with an idea for a business partnership.
Farmers have been cultivating the heirloom varieties for years, but they weren’t selling the rice for profit.
After much discussion, many local farmers decided to try it, and now Hensley’s Eighth Wonder is the sales end of a larger effort to provide support to the farmers and their communities.
“We’ve worked really hard to do it in a way that truly supports the farmers,” she said.
Selling the rice abroad at gourmet prices helps the farmers continue cultivating their unique varieties, rather than switching to industrial seed and processes. The profit they earn — which amounts to many times over the region’s poverty level — is cycled throughout their communities, Hensley said.
Eighth Wonder rice is sold locally at the Real Food Market and is also available online at www.heirloomrice.org.
In addition to the fair trade products, Sunday’s market also included vendors offering “alternative giving” options, like sending a mosquito net to Africa or donating money towards a cow, chicken or honeybees to be sent abroad through Heifer International.
Each time a donation was made to Friends of the Sacred Heart Ashram, founder Linda Cleatus banged on a drum. Funds raised on Sunday by the organization, which works with a homeless refuge in India, will help purchase textbooks for 12 of the ashram’s residents who are now attending college.
By providing a fair market for artisans’ and farmers’ products, fair trade organizations also hope to better the communities in which those producers live.
“It’s more about having a relationship with people,” said Betsy Mulligan-Dague, who runs the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center and fair trade store in Missoula. She also hosted a booth at Sunday’s market.
Mulligan-Dague said she encourages her customers to ask about fair trade products everywhere they shop.
She said fair trade isn’t the only ethical model for commerce — her shop sells American union-made merchandise, for instance — so she encourages consumers to make priorities and shop accordingly.
“Think about who made your goods,” she said.