Princeton residents Yamile Slebi and Camila Tellez started Fair Trade Princeton to start an ethical movement in their hometown.
The fair trade movement started to make waves in California in the 1990s, and Yamile Slebi was there to experience it.
“I got to meet and volunteer with a lot of the people involved,” she said. “I really liked the concept because it involves both the producers in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean and the consumers in developed countries.”
At its most basic definition, the concept of fair trade ensures that producers of coffee, tea, cacao, fruit and similar goods receive appropriate compensation for their products and labor. Fifteen years later, Slebi, now a Princeton resident, is still passionate about the cause. So is her daughter, Camila Tellez.
The two are so dedicated to fair trade, they decided to start their own organization, Fair Trade Princeton, in 2011. Slebi and Tellez do what they can to raise awareness in the area.
Many area businesses already supported fair trade.
“In the beginning, we spoke directly with retailers and realized that so many of them were already doing it,” Tellez said. “I thought Princeton was such a great town to do this in. The community was so receptive.”
The next step was to reach out to consumers. Fair Trade Princeton set up booths at events like Communiversity to create a local presence.
Princeton officially became a fair trade town after the town council passed a resolution in December 2011.
“We were able to build a community and work directly with (Mayor) Liz Lempert,” Tellez said. “Back then, she was on the township committee. Our first year, we worked with retailers, raised awareness and went to different events. The last step was writing a resolution. It passed unanimously. That was really exciting.”
Tellez first became interested in fair trade after meeting a farmer who said he was able to send his children to school because he was finally making a profit on his products thanks to fair trade.
“I realized that a lot of the producers are being oppressed by the system because they rarely made profit,” she said. “What fair trade does is it enables a living wage for them called the fair trade premium. It protects the fluctuation of the market so that the producers are actually able to stay on their land. A lot of times, especially in the 90s, they had to abandon their land and move to cities to try and find work. Now, they’re able to make a good profit that they can actually live off of.”
One of those many producers recently traveled to the area. Miguel Mateo, a Guatemalan coffee farmer, came to Princeton on April 20 to see his product on the shelves on local stores, including 10,000 Villages and Whole Earth Center in Princeton
Tellez said before fair trade, it took Mateo 10 years just to break even before he made any profit from his coffee.
“He works every day,” she said. “Because these big companies came down and bought their products at a very low price, they weren’t able to make a profit. They have to make their children work in the fields. It just creates stressful situations for them. They can’t break the cycle of poverty.”
Slebi said it is satisfying to see her daughter share her passion for fair trade.
“It’s exciting because she really believes in it,” she said. “It’s fun for her to do campaigns outside of school. She’s been invited to do a lot of interesting work, such as doing TED Talks and writing for publications. I think it’s been very rewarding for her to do this work.”
Tellez said fair trade is an easy cause to support because it’s not about donations.
“It breaks the cycle of poverty without having to give actual aid,” she said. “You’re helping them hit the global market on a larger scale, and you’re actually creating employment when they’re able to grow their plantations after they start making a profit. You can make a difference just by buying a different brand of coffee. It’s the little changes you make.”
“People sympathize with these farmers,” she said. “They become receptive to the concept because they know that they can make a change in producers’ lives with their purchases.”
She said there is still work to be done, and Fair Trade Princeton is doing what it can to continue to get the word out.
“Our main goal is only to bring awareness to consumers,” Slebi said. “We don’t buy and sell. We just support retailers. We support consumers. We support farmers and growers. It’s just a consumer awareness initiative.”
On the Web: fairtradeprinceton.org.
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