MANKATO — Jane Dow remembers a day several years ago when she and her daughter were seated at a hallway table in their church, trying to decide on a humanitarian campaign to actively support. Paul Renshaw, who’d been involved with the British fair trade movement before moving to Mankato, joined in the conversation.
“He said couldn’t think of a more effective social justice cause than fair trade,” Dow said.
Renshaw went on to explain some of its principles: fair prices for producers; fair wages and safe conditions for workers; environmentally sustainable practices; and investments in local communities.
“I said to myself, ‘This is it,’” said Dow, who is an early organizer and member of the Mankato Area Fair Trade Town Initiative, known as MAFFTI.
The group credits its origin to a 2009 presentation by two Peruvian co-op workers who described how fair trade had improved their lives. The women’s talk sparked an interest.
At the time, Mankato’s retail sector — with the exception of one coffee shop — had little interest in offering fair trade products.
“As the founding chair of MAFTTI, I can say without hesitation that Mankato people were ready to get involved when the idea of seeking the first Fair Trade Town designation was mooted in 2009,” Renshaw, who now lives in Washington, D.C., said in an email Thursday.
He recalled that in 2009, fair trade certified items were scarce in Mankato stores; however, a few churches were using fair trade coffee products and understood the principles of the movement. The initiative took on the challenge and began efforts to expand local options for purchasing fair trade products. Fast forward to today and its celebration of the 10-year anniversary of Mankato becoming the state’s first Fair Trade Town and the nation’s 25th.
“As MAFTTI engaged with the Mankato City Council, it was clear that council members saw the point and were happy to declare Mankato as the first Fair Trade Town in Minnesota when the national criteria were met Oct. 24, 2011,” Renshaw said.
Dow said when the group formed, it helped bring to town products from 13 fair trade companies and made available in 14 local stores. There now are 28 products being sold in 18 stores.
Mankato now has nine church congregations that support the initiative’s cause. Loyola became the nation’s first K-12 school to earn a fair trade designation.
“Campaigning on fair trade involves local people asking themselves questions about where their purchases come from and under what conditions they are produced. Whether it’s coffee, bananas, cotton goods or even gold, it makes you think in new ways about who gets what and why,” Renshaw said. “... It is encouraging to know that the Fair Trade Town idea is, at last, gaining some traction in the Twin Cities. Otherwise, Minnesota has a long way to go.”
St. Peter may be an exception. The town is home to a co-op that’s supported fair trade products throughout its existence, said Kris Higginbotham, the St. Peter Co-op’s brand manager.
Higginbotham listed Peace Coffee is one product that for years has been sold and brewed there. General Manager Erik Larson said he is proud of the relationship with a worker-owned company that supplies the store with bananas from Ecuador and Peru.
“Their story is fascinating,” Larson said, then added the co-op is one of the few places in Minnesota to carry the small company’s bananas.
Pandemic shortages do not appear to be effecting the co-op’s supply of fair trade produce. “Right now, we have lots of Equal Exchange avocados from Mexico,” Higginbotham said.
Dow said her group continues to have a presence at events throughout the year, although promotions have been slowed by COVID-19 restrictions.
MAFTTI has found ways to adapt its methods of getting the word out about 10th anniversary events. It’s showing of a documentary focused on fast fashion production is a hybrid event. “The True Cost” may be viewed in person 6:30 p.m. today at Grace Lutheran Church or via Zoom.