Monday, January 27, 2014

Fair Trade Disillusionment

For a number of years I worked for a grocery chain that prides itself in treating everyone, including its suppliers fairly. Thus, I had a lot of exposure to the preaching that fair trade products are superior. Some people, customers of the store and its employees, often spoke very angrily about companies that didn't participate in fair trade. I never felt passionate, but I thought that logically, shopping fair trade made sense. Consumers were promised that by paying that extra amount, the workers and producers of that product were being paid a living wage that allowed them to not only adequately provide for their families, but thrive and grow. I didn't look into it, and I didn't think much about it, yet I, along with many others, was persuaded by the superiority of fair trade

Last Wednesday, I was manning the book table at an event at the Hatcher library at the University of Michigan. The speaker was Sarah Besky and her book is entitled The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India. I like tea, so I was immediately interested for that alone, but the idea of a "fair trade plantation" intrigued me, as well. 

Being American, I was not raised with in any way a positive perception of plantations. Michigan especially prides itself on its role in the Civil War and the years leading up to it. Children in Southwest Michigan, where I grew up, can go on field trips to stops along the Underground Railroad. Plantations were definitely portrayed to us in a dark light. So how can a plantation treat its workers fairly, giving them a living wage that they can then use to become prosperous? Aren't fair trade farmers supposed to small scale?

It turns out that not only are plantations still around and thriving in the world today, that's where a lot of our stuff comes from, including those stamped fair trade. (In 2011, Fair Trade USA broke from Fair Trade International so as to be able to certify more plantations as fair trade.) As Sarah Besky pointed out, the fair trade premiums go to the plantation owners, not the workers. The Inconvenient Truth About Fair Trade, speaking about coffee co-operatives, backs her up: "[Fair Trade] merely guarantees a minimum price paid to co-operatives. Whether the co-operatives pass enough of the profits on to growers, and whether that minimum price can support living wages to begin with, are well beyond the scope of Fair Trade certification."

In Darjeeling, one does not choose to be a plantation worker, one is born into it, as were one's parents, grandparents, and children. They are not hired help, the plantation is their home, and all the workers on it are extended family because they are all descended from the original workers brought over from Nepal. The workers cannot come and go as they please because the plantation is, essentially, their entire world. Also, the region is quite remote, so there is not really any place for them to conceivably go.

It is true that being certified "fair trade" means conforming to certain guidelines. Unfortunately, these guidelines may not always harmonize with local laws and requirements. In India, for example, there are many laws in place to protect workers already. However, in the case of Darjeeling, there is, as Besky reported, only one labor officer to regulate eighty-seven plantations. Because the fair trade certified plantations are so certified, meaning they must conform to the fair trade guidelines, these plantations are largely ignored by the labor officer. In order to get their needs met, some plantation workers in Darjeeling went on hunger strike

At both stores where I now work, a gift store and a book store, we sell products marked fair trade, mostly jewelry. Having spoken personally with a couple of the people who supply stores like ours around the world with fair trade jewelry, I feel pretty confident that this is an altogether different animal than agriculture. For example, Project Have Hope is a good example of fair trade policies directly benefiting workers. I feel this muddies the perception of fair trade in the eyes of the public. 

Should we stop buying fair trade because the politics are more complicated than we realized? I think that is up to every individual to decide. I was assured by both Sarah Besky and a fellow attendant that the tea plantations in Assam operate quite differently than in Darjeeling, but does that make them better? I was given the impression not. I think we all need to better educate ourselves about where our commodities come from and what exactly is meant by the little stamp that reads "fair trade." The growers may very well be small, independents, or part of a co-operative or plantation that fairly distributes the premium. They also might not be and are currently on strike. The truth is, we really don't know until we look.

Here is another look at what fair trade means from the Huffington Post: Fact vs. Fiction: the Truth About Fair Trade.

Monday, January 20, 2014

New Year Microresolutions

One of the things I love most about my jobs at Crazy Wisdom is getting first crack at so many new books hitting the market. Opening a box of books sent to us directly from the distributor or publisher is kind of like uncovering buried treasure every day I work. It's an adventure. What new wonders await me? What secret knowledge has been uncovered? Which tales are waiting to be told? Sometimes, I find that the new releases are not for me, or that they're a little hokey. Most often, though, I want to devour every single tome then and there. I'm a professional, so I refrain. Usually. 

One book that I recently categorized under self-help (I get to pick the categories for the new books I check in - isn't that neat?) is called Small Move, Big Change by Caroline L. Arnold and I, at first, thought it was one of the hokey ones. I am very, very skeptical of all self-help books. All too often the authors are bright, shiny people with toothy grins that promise to change your life TODAY, as if all you had to do was read their books and a magical switch would be turned on in your brain changing you into a whole new person - poof! Even when the back covers admit that you have to want it and work hard, they make it sound so easy. Too easy. 

So I thumbed through Small Move to see if this was another terrible, unlikely promise. What I discovered surprised me. It had some good ideas. The book rightly points out that at New Year's time, people make all kinds of big, pretty difficult to achieve resolutions to change their lives from quitting an unhealthy habit, losing ridiculous amounts of weight, getting into amazing shape, etc. These are completely achievable goals, but generally only when tackled one by one and taking small steps, not giant leaps that can easily discourage. Most people fail in their resolution endeavors.

But why bank everything on New Year's? You can resolve to make changes in your life any day of the year. Do you want to lost weight? Get in shape? Okay, so make that decision today. But don't say something like, "I'm going to lose 40 pounds by Halloween!" Try "I am going to begin every day by jogging in place for 4 minutes." Do it as soon as you get out of bed. Tell yourself you can't have breakfast until you jog your 4 minutes. 

This is a microresolution I found on page 95 of Small Moves that I have decided to adopt for myself. I started on Friday, and so far I feel pretty good! I did wake up sore the second morning, and I had to rise extra early for work, but really, 4 minutes is not a lot of time. I felt considerably more invigorated afterward, too, which is definitely something I needed after only 6 hours of sleep. 

Another great microresolution that I've taken on is eating breakfast every morning. The book points out that if you wake up in the morning and aren't hungry, it's probably because you ate too late the previous night, which is true for me. Because I often work late, I might not eat dinner until after 10 or 11 pm. As a result, I'm now trying to eat less for dinner, having only half a chicken breast on Thursday instead of a whole one, for example.

On Friday, since I had time before I had to work that night, I made an English muffins and four slices of bacon, a breakfast I repeated on Sunday before heading into work at 1:30. Saturday, the stupidly early day with little sleep, I ate oatmeal with raisins and had a glass of orange juice. This kept me quite full for many hours, and I was very pleased. It also gave me two servings of fruit for the day. Today I had a bowl of Weetabix to which I added raisins, which I'd never tried before. It turned out to be very tasty. I also made tea, because tea is awesome. Tea also happens to be packed with antioxidants, but that isn't why I drink it.

Another reason I love working for a bookstore is the free advanced reader copies we receive from the publishers and reps. After deciding not to borrow Small Move (borrowing books is another perk), I discovered an advance paperback edition in the basement and took that home with me instead. Score! Now I can read the whole thing at my leisure. I only glanced through fitness, diet, and nutrition at the store. Other chapters include sleep, clutter, relationships, spending, punctuality, and "organization - one-off project," whatever that means. 

Coming in under 250 pages, this book isn't a long read. Just glancing through it has already given me some good ideas that I've managed to stick with, and feel fully confidant that I can continue. I'm not saying everyone should read it, or that it is going to change your life forever, but it doesn't seem completely hokey, and just the tips I mentioned above I think most people would find useful. 

So here, then, are my microresolutions: jog in place for 4 minutes every morning before breakfast, which Iwill eat. The lady in the book had her 4 minutes in place turn into a jog down the block and back, then around the block, and so on and so forth until she was a regular jogger and lost a total of 40 lbs. I won't say that's my ultimate goal (for one, I hate running), but losing 40 lbs certainly isn't a bad side effect. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Life in the Polar Vortex

Having grown up in the shadow of Lake Effect Snow, I am used to snow and ice taking out power lines, sometimes ripping them right off the house such as happened to my house in my senior year of high school. Being without power is a pretty serious business when the temperature is hovering around 0, let alone below zero. I've been through plenty of power outages, but I've always had gas powered heat, so it wasn't much of an issue, just annoying. So when I went to bed last Monday night under piles of blankets with Memphis curled up at my feet, though I had a blip thought of "what would we do if the heat went out," my mind dismissed that as a possibility because how could the polar vortex knock out the gas?

Though I've not been given an explanation, that is exactly what happened. Greg got up for work before the sun rose and checked the thermostat because it felt unusually cold in here. We normally keep our heat at 68, and it was around 60 when Greg checked it. He assumed, as I would have, that the furnace was just having trouble combating the outrageous cold that had moved in. 

Then I woke at 7:30 freezing. It was the coldest I had ever felt inside a building in my life. Memphis was an immobile lump curled up between my legs, his nose tucked into tail. I pulled him under the covers with me, which he started to protest, then settled down because it was warmer under the blankets. I finally got the courage to crawl out of bed and check the thermostat. The needle was resting at its lowest point, 50, which means it was actually less than 50 in the apartment. 

I immediately went to the stove, turned it on 400 and cracked the door to heat up the kitchen at least. Sawyer had buried himself under a blanket on the couch and was curled up tightly to keep warm. Memphis followed me around trying to use me as a heat source whenever I settled down in one spot, which was never for long. I texted Greg that the heat was out, then called the leasing office and left a message with them. I then called the emergency maintenance line and was told it was a problem with our entire neighborhood and that DTE was already aware and working on it. She directed me to call DTE for an update.

First I tried DTE's website which is not equipped for gas outages, only electricity problems. I managed to track down a general customer assistance number and called that. I explained what the emergency maintenance woman had told me and the DTE woman told me with full confidence that I had been lied to. Uh, what? She then spent 10 minutes making me run all kinds of check on my apartment, tried to get me to check things that aren't available to me because I live in an apartment, not a house, which she didn't seem to understand, clear a path to my furnace, and demand I shovel out a path to the box outside. I told her that I couldn't do that because I had to go to work, and she said if I didn't make someone from the office go out there right then and shovel a path, then I wasn't going to get my heat back. 

When she finally got all the info she needed, she put me on hold to pass along the info to her supervisor. She was gone maybe 30 seconds before she got back on the line and told me that it wasn't just me, it was my entire neighborhood and that DTE was aware of the problem and working on it. EXACTLY WHAT I HAD STARTED MY CALL WITH AND WHAT SHE HAD SAID WAS A LIE. She would have saved us both time and aggravation by just listening to what I had said, putting me on hold, and checking with her supervisor first. 

Meanwhile, Greg got a hold of his aunt to coordinate her picking up our cats and getting them safely to her house which had heat. That meant me getting the cats into their carriers. Unfortunately, I could only find one carrier. Before I even pulled it out of the closet, I closed the doors to the bedrooms and bathroom, and Sawyer immediately freaked out, literally bouncing off the walls in his panic to find some place safe to hide. I captured Memphis first and got him in the carrier. Sawyer I had to drag from under the TV, his claws digging into everything within reach, including me. Amazingly, I managed to get them both in the same carrier, which pissed them both off more than they have ever been pissed off in their little kitty lives. 

It took me 1.5 hours for my car, which almost wouldn't start in the cold, to crawl into work (it usually takes 20 minutes) over ice sheets that had once been roads. I parked in the parking garage 3 blocks away, and even as bundled up as I was, my cheeks were exposed to the -38 air and remained red and raw for days. If you want to know what that kind of weather feels like, it's just like burning yourself with fire, only instead of intense heat, it is intensely cold. I have now experienced both. When I was little, the popcorn maker caught on fire and a spark fell on my wrist, bubbling the skin. The cold felt just like that, only cold.

By the time I got home that night (we'd had 2 customers all day), the heat was back on, but felt weak, and DTE said it was only a temporary solution that might fail again. Greg and I decided to keep the kitties where they were and join them ourselves for the night. The added problem was that Memphis had been exhibiting symptoms of a bladder infection, and I had a vet appointment scheduled for the next day. Happily, the highway at least was drivable, though not past 50mph, and I got Memphis to the vet on time, though he yowled more than he has ever yowled in his life the entire way there. 

I like our new vet, and the office ladies are very friendly. That's the plus in this scenario. It turns out it was not a bladder infection, but what the vet thought is an ongoing problem that Memphis will never get over. She said I have to buy a special prescription food that is more than double the cost of my usual cat food and give him nothing but distilled water, which I have to buy from the store. This does seem a little extreme to me, and out of my means, but what choice do I have? So thus far, I have been following the vet's instructions, and Memphis is back to his old self. 

After the vet visit, I got Memphis settled back at home with his new food and water, then met Greg at his aunt's house to pack up Sawyer. With the carrier trip so fresh in his mind, Sawyer was NOT HAPPY about going back in, and it took all three of us to shove him in there. Sawyer scratched Greg along the neck and tore gashes in my suede winter coat. I can't seem to find any tutorials online on how to fix it properly. All I can think is hot glue to hold the flaps closed. 

After such an exhausting couple of days, Greg and I just made a frozen pizza and I sipped hot chocolate while he had a beer. The kitties happily pranced around the warm apartment purring. We all went to bed early. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

How I am Spending My Time During Winter Storm Ion

This meme is indeed appropriate. (And pure genius.) I wasn't aware there was a serious winter storm headed our way when Greg and I set out to run errands on Friday, we just thought we'd pick up some things while we were out. I ended up getting a new pair of snow boots with good tread and we picked up most of our needed groceries before the stores were ransacked by the panicking public. (Fun fact: milk and bread are the two things to disappear first off store shelves in an emergency. I have no idea why.) 

I was happy to have Saturday off, when they had anticipated the first flakes to fall, and when the weather turned out to be just fine, Greg and I spent the evening seeing The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug in the theater. I discovered a sneaky back way to the Rave Cinema that cuts off up to ten minutes of our drive time. Yay! I like their all-stadium seating.

Originally, I was supposed to be into work early on Sunday to do inventory, but with the storm supposedly on its way Saturday night, the owners decided to reschedule until Monday, when the storm was supposed to have passed. This was really too bad because Winter Storm Ion decided to alter its schedule, as well, and came a day late. I was stuck at work regardless, though, from 1am to 5pm, during which time we had a whopping two groups of customers resulting in 3 sales. When I saw a troupe in snow shoes trudge by the store, I knew it was time to go home.

The snow had been falling steadily all day Sunday, and I estimated we had received about 5 or 6 inches so far. I'd seen a number of plows and salt trucks go by while I was at work, and the roads had been great when I came in. Apparently those trucks didn't venture past the immediate downtown area, because I barely was able to inch my way to the highway, where the roads were a little clearer. It still took me over an hour to drive what should have been 20 minutes due to limited visibility from blowing snow and a good 2 inches on the road surface itself. My car fishtailed a few times (the addition of 100 lbs of rock salt to my trunk helped stabilize me), and I could barely make it around any bends on the road. I did NOT want to go out again after that!

Greg, however, wasn't worried and we went out anyway. It again took us an hour to make what should have been a 20 minute drive to our friends' house in Farmington. On our return, we got stuck at the end of their driveway. Luckily, our friends were able to push on out. Then we got stuck again for a minute at the end of the street, but were able to rock out on our own. The drive home was again quite slow, and we couldn't make into the drive we usually take to our parking lot, which had been freshly plowed when we left, because of the 6 inches that had fallen in the previous 6 hours. Greg managed to turn the car around and go in the main entrance up the road where it also wasn't plowed, but there were tracks we could drive in. 

Waking up this morning, I just had this feeling that inventory was not getting done. The store manager texted me to tell me her car had been plowed in. I peered out our sliding glass door at my own car, a pile of white with a good three feet of plowed snow behind it. Grand. I was supposed to be in at noon, so I started the unburying process around 10:30. The guy next to me was also attempting to get his car out. After spinning his tires for a few minutes, he did make it. There were a few of us around with shovels, too. This did not bode well. 

I went inside and looked on Google maps to see if I could get an idea of road conditions. A friend on Facebook informed me that highways 275 and 14 were in bad shape, and that is the precise route the owner of the store would be taking to get to Ann Arbor. Google claimed that that junction was closed. It also said that a few other junctions and ramps were closed, as well as a street in downtown Ann Arbor that I knew to have been open Sunday night. I texted this to the manager, then went back out to continue freeing my car. 

Just as I was readying to leave my parking space, I received a phone call that inventory had been canceled and I should not go in. Hallelujah! I really did not relish fighting the drifts. Every route I had inspected on Google maps had warning signs of danger. Every local school was closed, and most businesses were also warning employees to stay away. Phew!

Inspired by a friend, I immediately made a cup of hot cocoa and sat at my computer where I spent the next several hours performing maintenance and updates, an incredibly frustrating endeavor, but at least I finally had time to do it. I have also been working on a story that I intend to submit to an anthology for publication soon. It's my first steampunk short story, believe it or not, and I've based it in Japan.

All this typing has exposed my fingers to an uncomfortable amount of cold. I think it's time I wrapped them around a hot cuppa tea. I hope everyone else is also staying cozy! Happy Snow Day!