Sunday, July 15, 2007

Fair Trade = Fair Price? - Tokyo 7.15.07

I was strolling around Jiyugaoka (自由が丘) the other day and came across this medium-sized boutique shop called "People Tree." A friend from Taiwan has told me about this shop before and said that a chain has opened in Taipei just a few blocks from my house, close to the Yong-kang Park.

Excited, I took out my camera and took a few snap shots of the store before diving right into it.

What's so special about "People Tree"?

Well, it's one of the few places that carries exclusively fair-trade merchandise from all over the world. From a scarf hand-woven in Myanmar to a wooden flute done in the ivory coast to a hand bag dyed and painted in Indonesia, "People Tree" promotes fair trade products and consciousness by detailedly explains the country of origin from which each merchandise comes and sometimes the amount of labor or technical expertise poured into each item. In the far corner of the store, a wooden table and a few chairs invite those who are interested in learning more about fair trade to sit down and browse through the books/magazines on this issue. A bulletin board is also put up to post the latest public/private lectures/workshops on related topics.

After 10 or 15 minutes of browsing in the store, however, I left "People Tree" somewhat disappointedly.

How so?


For a poor graduate student like myself, as much as the idea of fair trade makes every logical sense to me, I simply cannot afford it. The day when I visited the shop, it was in fact undergoing a huge summer sale. With most of the items given by at least a 30% discount, I still found them way above my budget line. A simple cotton shirt costs over 3000 yen, not to mention a tie-dyed skirt that costs over 5000 yen. Giving up on clothes, I thought about picking up perhaps a smaller item as a way to show my support, but even a small, Japanese-paperback-sized book cover costs over 1000 yen, let alone accessories that are twice as much as usual.

I didn't even dare flipping over the sales tag to check the price for a silk spring scarf or a hand-woven bag, as much as they looked extremely appealing to me.

At last I returned to the reading corner and attempted to pick up a seasonal catalogue for memory or future reference value. Surprisingly, the back of the catalogue reads, with tiny print in the corner: 360 yen. I put the catalogue down and only took one of the photocopied sheets that briefly explains the basic concept of fair trade.

Walking out the store, I gave the whole thing a little bit more thought. I don't understand the underlying organization of fair trade that much, and I certainly am not aware of how price is set in the first place and what percentage of the profit is returned back to the labor workers and what percentage is reserved for the dealer and the shop owner. However, the high-end price range still puzzles me. To put it simply - how is a customer like myself, who fully identifies with the idea of fair trade yet does not have sufficient financial capability, supposed to support this great cause? Am I supposed to advertise this to other more affluent friends so that they could take upon the great cause for me?

Like the issue of "organic food" that used to (and still, I think) bother me for the issue of being more expensive and seemingly serving only the garment lovers (despite being obviously more healthy), a fair trade boutique shop like "People Tree" now raises a similar doubt. If the ultimate end goal of fair trade is to help those who reside in the developing countries and alleviate them from possible corporate abuse, could this end goal similarly be applied to the consumer's end as well? Could this be a fair trade both fair to the suppliers and the customers alike?

For those who are more familiar with the topic, I welcome your input/comments. And if interested, there's a related article on the Taipei's "People Tree": "People Tree"@永康街. Sadly, there isn't any mentioning of the price issue from the customer's viewpoint in this article.

Or, alternatively - you could go visit "People Tree" in Taipei and let me know what you think!

"People Tree"@自由が丘

People Tree's explanation on dry mango made the Philippines via fair trade mechanism.

梅ちゃん at 9:36:00 PM



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