Unity is the areas first fair trade certified merchant, selling handcrafted goods from around the world. The store is the dream come true for Traverse City residents Nichole Warner (formerly Manning -- she just got married) and Vicki Kinney.
Ive had this vision for 12 years, said Warner. But it really came into focus over that last couple of years, especially after spending some time in Panama.
The whole concept of fair trade has been developing in Europe for the past 15 years and is now growing strong here in the United States. In Michigan, Unity is the fourth fair trade store, joining others in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Saugatuck.
A FAIR PRICE
Fair trade in its simplest terms means that producers are guaranteed a fair price for their work based on their cost of living. It also means both parties buyers and sellers- voluntarily agree to adhere to certain standards such as no forced labor and exploitative child labor can be used, working conditions must be healthy and safe, there must be equal employment opportunities for all this clause mostly benefits women as nearly 70 percent of the artisans who produce fair trade crafts are female.
There is also an environmental edge to the fair trade concept as sustainable production techniques are strongly encouraged.
Lastly, all aspects of trade and production are open to public accountability.
Strangely enough, it was the free trade agreements over a decade ago that have spurred the fair trade movement we have today, said Warner.
When big business headed south of the border (and east and west) in search of lower production costs and higher profit margins, an international economic ghetto was created. In these third world countries the poorest of the poor either have to work for corporations, earning ridiculously meager wages, toiling in despicable working conditions or, if they decide to work for themselves, they are forced to sell their commodities at absurdly low prices in order to compete with big business. Either way, men, women and children live hand-to-mouth and extreme poverty becomes a way of life.
The old saying, The rich get richer while the poor get poorer is definitely true in regards to free global trade, Warner said.
A WIDE RANGE
Fair trade products encompass a wide range of goods from agricultural products such as coffee, chocolate, tea and bananas, to handcrafts like clothing, household items and decorative art.
According to Warner and Kinney, a lot of the current fair trade cooperatives and retail operations are faith based. The best example is the Ten Thousand Villages operation, which is Mennonite. Although very spiritual themselves, Warner and Kinney wanted their store to be no strings attached.
It is very important to allow these people to keep their native faith traditions, said Warner. I think it is crucial these traditions be preserved and passed on to future generations.
Step into Unity and youll find pottery from Nicaragua and Peru, soapstone statues from Kenya, recycled oil drum artwork from Haiti, jewelry from Mexico, India and Bali, embroidered pillows, pillowcases and quilts from India, silk bags from Cambodia, drums from Ghana. There are also a variety of childrens books, toys, puppets, world music CDs and musical instruments from around the world.
But not everything is imported. Unity is proud to carry items from Enterprising Kitchen which is a bath and body care line produced by disadvantaged and homeless women in the Chicago area and the Womens Bean Project which is soup, cookie and bread mixes from a womens shelter in Denver.
A GATHERING SPACE
Shopping isnt the only activity at Unity. One fourth of the stores floor space is devoted to what Warner and Kinney call the gathering space.
We want people to come and hang out, read, talk, relax, said Kinney. Anyone can use this space for meetings or discussion groups.
To that end, Unity also offers a selection of By The Light of Day organic teas, Higher Grounds organic coffee and Peruvian Yerba Mate energy drinks. There is also a small lending library featuring books on various pertinent topics, such as the fair trade movement.
Actually, the first time you visit the store you should steep a cup of tea and walk around, read the plaques and rifle through the binders on display that tell the stories of the artisans. One of the most compelling is the Blessing Basket Project in Uganda.
Women in Uganda are a very low priority. The women who weave these traditional baskets know first-hand about hunger, pain, death and despair. Most have buried not one or two, but three or more loved-ones, lost to the AIDS epidemic ravaging their country. Most of the weavers have also been so desperate for money they have resorted to prostitution. They simply had no alternatives until the Blessing Basket Project.
The income from their fair trade baskets now allow these women to provide adequate housing, nutritious meals and an education for their families. This simple business has sparked a revolution of social and economic change in Uganda.
Warner and Kinney hope to do the same here in Northern Michigan.
Not only have these two created the store, but they have also started a non-profit organization called Peace through Unity in which excess profits from the store will be used to fund various educational events designed to build community on a local, regional, national and international level. The first event is scheduled to begin this summer in the form of a free summer concert series entitled Common Ground. These concerts will be held on Sundays, starting June 26 through August 6, at 4 p.m. on the grounds of the Grand Traverse Commons, near
The goal here is to provide a variety of music in a casual family-friendly envi-ronment, said Warner. We want families to come and picnic. Kids can blow bubbles or run through the sprinkler. All the while we are subtly getting the word out that together we can live in peace.
But Warner and Kinneys plans for Peace through Unity run way beyond a summer concert series. They would like to one day sponsor an international food and music festival in Traverse City and also start an after school program called Kids for Peace that would teach kids about every aspect of peace peace within themselves, their community and the world around them. Way down the road, they envision leading educational
tours to some of the sources of the stores fair trade wares.
Will they succeed?
Our mission is so true and our hearts are so true in this endeavor, said Kinney. As far as Im concerned, weve already succeeded... but we still hope lots of people stop in and see for themselves.
Unity Fair Trade Marketplace and Gathering Space is located in the alley directly behind Union Street Station, off of Union Street. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone is (231) 929-4228 or toll free (866) 510-FAIR. Visit their web site