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Church store promotes fair trade, justice

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A UMNS photo by Tim Griffis
Store manager Robert Ewing helps a customer at the Ends of the Earth fair trade store.
May 5, 2006

By Lynne Bevan DeMichele*

TACOMA, Wash. (UMNS) — Anybody can go to the ends of the earth without leaving the state of Washington — and in doing so help struggling African farmers and support the rain forest.

“ Ends of the Earth,” a small shop on the first floor of First United Methodist Church in Tacoma, stocks coffee, chocolate, crafts and a host of other fair-trade products. The unusual store also offers handmade cosmetic creams, jewelry, drums, pots and baby clothes — all produced by village farmers and artisans in countries such as Ghana, Mexico, Peru and Indonesia.

Part of the growing international fair-trade movement, Ends of the Earth operates on the premise that consumer habits in affluent countries need not be supported at the expense of the poor in developing countries.

To be considered “fair trade,” items must be produced without the use of child labor, and those who produce them must be paid a fair wage with safe working conditions and collective bargaining power.

“It’s a different economic model,” says Susan Dobkins, executive director of the church’s Micah Project, which sponsors the store. “It doesn’t have to be a race to the bottom. … We can pay a decent price (for these products) and people on the other end can live a decent life.”

Ideal for UMCOR

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Tim Griffis

A customer looks over the selection of products offered for sale.

June Kim, an executive with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, says fair trade is not just about product but is “a principle and a movement.” UMCOR established its churchwide Coffee Project in 2002 in partnership with Equal Exchange, a worker-owned cooperative.

“It’s an ideal match for UMCOR,” she says, “(the program’s growth) has been phenomenal.” Over 86 tons of fair-trade coffee, tea and cocoa has been purchased since 2002 through the United Methodist Coffee Project.

According to Peter Buck, interfaith liaison at Equal Exchange, a total of close to 9,000 churches, synagogues, schools and other faith communities purchased fair-trade products through them last year. The churches included 1,224 United Methodist congregations. And for each bag purchased, 15 cents goes back to UMCOR’s sustainable agriculture programs.

Global Mamas

Ends of the Earth is able to price items it sells competitively, although it is too small to buy in bulk. That’s because, as Dobkins explains, “In the free-trade model there are fewer middle men.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Tim Griffis

"We pay a decent price and people on the other end can live a decent life," says Susan Dobkins.

To supply the shop, which opened last December, Dobkins and co-founder Robert Ewing buy directly from village cooperatives, such as Global Mamas in Ghana, which makes colorful clothing for women and children.

Many of the “Global Mamas” are single parents whose husbands have died of AIDS and for whom the clothes they sew are their only source of income. Ewing, who serves as Ends of the Earth store manager, calls the fair trade system “a lifeline” for such women.

“None of this is charity,” he says. “It’s all on a competitive market, but they’re guaranteed a living wage out of it.”

The shop also stocks items from small wholesalers with direct connections in Africa and South America. “Many of them are returned Peace Corps volunteers or missionary folks who want to have some connection back to that country,” Dobkins explains. “It just blows me away how friendly they all are … and they give us all kinds of advice about what’s available.”

Raising awareness

Three years ago, Ewing — a retired Boeing executive and a lay member of Tacoma First — was determined to raise awareness of fair trade issues. He began by persuading the congregation to serve only fair trade coffee and, soon after, to offer bags of coffee and tea for sale to parishioners as a fund-raiser.

The project was so well received that Ewing and Dobkins proposed starting a store within the church, stocked with much more than coffee and tea. Last year, with the church board’s approval and $1,000 in seed money from the denomination’s Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference, the pair began going — online — to the ends of the earth.

By the time Dobkins and Ewing had established the store’s initial inventory, their personal credit cards had underwritten an additional $5,000 to do it. The little store opened just in time for Christmas shoppers, and it’s been going ever since. Any profits will be used to support the church’s peace and justice ministries.

Growth plans

Although the shop is tiny, it’s well located next door to a large city hospital. Every week, thousands of city workers, hospital employees and visitors pass by the store’s entrance on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in downtown Tacoma. Increasingly, they’re stopping at Ends of the Earth to shop.

Leaders of the Micah Project, the shop’s sponsors, oversee its operation. Plans are in the works for further development of Ends of the Earth store, Dobkins says, including expansion of inventory and store hours as well as a possible online catalog. The shop is open afternoons on Thursdays through Saturdays and for three hours on Sundays.

“We want an eclectic and colorful stock of items,” Dobkins adds. She believes the store should appeal to modern, fashion-conscious people as well as those who love traditional “native” crafts.

Dobkins acknowledges the need for better promotion. She’s hoping for assistance from marketing students at nearby University of Puget Sound, a United Methodist-related liberal arts institution.

If that happens, the students would likely find that the store offers a different take on what a business can be.

Says Dobkins: “It’s a model of global trade which takes into account that profit can’t be our only motivation.”

*DeMichele is a freelance correspondent based in the Seattle area.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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