Make Schools, Not War

imagesThis morning’s paper had a compelling editorial by Nicholas Kristof, co-author of the current occupant of my bedside table, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Kristof (an Oregon native although now he lives in New York) suggests building schools in Afghanistan would more likely lead to peace and a strong Afghan society than sending in 40,000 additional US troops. How’s that Mr. Kristof?

Actually I believe the guy because I’ve got his book fresh on my brain. In both his column and in Half the Sky Mr. Kristof lays out very plainly and factually how investment in education of girls directly leads to economic development, improved health for women and children, and peace. Nations that invest in girls’ education have less terrorist activity (Kristof cites Bangladesh as an example). The converse is nations that are most repressive of women (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Congo) have much more terrorist activity as well as much higher infant/ maternal mortality rates and great struggles with economic underdevelopment.

Compared to guns and troops, schools are super cheap to build and run. There are fantastic NGOs out there that know how to build them and run them well (CARE, Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute, to name a few).  What are the chances the US government, including my beloved President Obama, would turn to cheap-o schools over the economic powerhouse of war though? If you ask me, slim to none. Sure we’ll keep throwing token USAID funding at building schools while at the same time squandering our precious tax dollars on the machine of war. It so angers me that we can’t agree as a nation on funding a public healthcare option but we can go out and put our troops in harms way and kill countless innocent Afghan civilians, all in the name of peace and nation-building. It just doesn’t work. Never has, never will.

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World Pulse’s New Issue Is Out…And It’s Really Good

wp- fulfill cover singleOne my favorite magazines that I’ve blogged about before is World Pulse. It’s this fabulous collection of stories and articles about women’s issues worldwide. It’s unlike any other women’s magazine I’ve ever read, being globally-minded and focused on the most positive aspects of what women are doing worldwide.

This latest issue focuses on new economic models from women visionaries, including those in the fair trade movement. A number of the issue’s articles are available online but you have to get the print edition to read the full issue, including the excellent fair trade article.

The fair trade article, entitled Unraveling Women’s Fair Trade, takes a hard look at the model of fair trade company such as mine at Bambootique and how difficult it is to make such companies sustainable not to mention profitable. I know first-hand how difficult that is. Thankfully Bambootique has been financially sustainable (i.e. broken even) since day one, but the profitable side for the most part is still a future hope and dream.  This is the reality for many similar companies for a whole host of reasons. The market is certainly there for our products and it’s rapidly  growing, but there are so many challenges too. They include scale (we can be inefficient because we are so small), shipping and customs costs, the communication difficulties related to working with small groups of women often working in remote areas, getting our products to market, etc.  The article points out that the joy of running such a business and knowing how much good we are doing far outweighs the challenges, at least for many in this industry. And many of us are getting more sustainable and more profitable, both business owners and artisans, as the market grows and our businesses get stronger.

Look for the latest issue of World Pulse on a newstand near you. I know I’ve seen it in the Portland area at Powell’s, Borders and natural food stores like Whole Foods.

Empowering Women Is The Answer

IMG_5367One of the many seeds that grew into Bambootique was when I read in one of my MBA’s economic textbooks that, when women have work, they are far more likely than men to spend their income on improving their children’s future – food, education, healthcare, clothing, housing, etc.  That was a lightbulb moment for me, although it was several years later before that seed grew into an actual business.  Still it was my own moment of empowerment, when I knew that I could do something profound that could change the lives of women and, in turn, help those women offer their children a better, brighter future.

A few days ago the New York Times ran a beautiful and concrete article on the very topic of eliminating poverty in the developing world through women. The authors, a married couple who co-wrote the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, talk about how when women have work they are less likely to be abused by their husbands because they are seen as valuable rather than as a burden. They provide employment for their poor neighbors.  They invest in their children’s educations. And as a result they boost their countries’ overall economies both now and, hopefully, in the future through their children.

The authors conclude that foreign aid as a blanket solution to poverty is inadequate. Shoving money at problems doesn’t necessarily get rid of them and, in many cases, makes problems worse.  However the authors point specifically to microfinance (giving small loans, mainly to women, to help them start or expand their own businesses) as one aspect of foreign aid that is most successful. Be sure to check out this well-written, well-researched article for more insights on the power of women to change their own lives.

95% of Bambootique’s artisans are women and many are micro-loan recipients through local lending programs. I don’t turn away men who make great products. But my vision is to empower women, knowing that men tend to have greater access to markets and other ways to earn an income than their female counterparts. I’m proud, in my own small way, to be part of such a movement. And I can’t wait to read Half the Sky, which I already have on hold at the library!

Great News For Fair Trade

IMG_4997This recession has had me pretty bummed out, with the constant bombardment of doom and gloom. Want some good news?  Worldwide fair trade sales were up 22% in 2008!  This according to a recent announcement by the Fairtrade Foundation, an independent non-profit organization based in the UK that certifies fair trade products sold in Britian.  Their report looked at global growth of fair trade sales and found the majority of increase in sales was in fair trade tea (up 112%), fair trade coffee (up 14%) and fair trade bananas (up 28%).

A number of developed nations saw fair trade sales increase by more than 50%, including Canada where fair trade grew by 67%. The US saw slower growth of just 10% but in total sales we still remain one of the largest markets for fair trade products.

Here at Bambootique I’ve seen sales so far in 2009 increase 25% over 2008’s sales, a surprising figure given the focus on low-price during this economic crisis. In order to keep paying my artisans fair and living wages I haven’t slashed my prices, haven’t had big sales, and yet customers are still coming back. My experience at Bambootique reflects the encouraging worldwide trend towards greater consumer awareness and action even during difficult times.  Artisans and farmers in the developing world need fair trade more than ever. When we feel the pinch here, they feel an unbearable squeeze as whatever economic opportunities there were dry up completely.

I want to offer a heartfelt thank you to each of you who go out of your way to shop for fair trade products, whether from me or from elsewhere. It’s during these hard times that our true priorities and beliefs shine through. Thank you for believing that you can make a difference in the lives of others, even in the small choices you make every day.

$3/ Month? For Kids I Can Do That

The Oregon State legislature just passed a whole slew of new taxes to cover funding gaps across the state. One that caught my eye (or ear actually, since I was listening to NPR) is an approved new tax on health insurance premiums to provide healthcare for Oregon’s uninsured children.  According to the story, the average privately insured Oregonian (such as my family) will pay $3/ month on top of their healthcare premiums. As my friend Jordan pointed out, that’s one latte from Starbucks.  Ouch.

So far there is no organized oppostion to the tax, which amazes me in this tax-phobic state. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t love higher taxes anymore than the next person. Whether or not this new tax lowers overall health costs, as proponents for it argue, we should provide healthcare for all children no matter what it costs us. A society that denies a basic human right such as healthcare for its most vulnerable citizens is truly heartless but sadly, that’s what we have become.  It gladdens my heart to see an idea put forward that will ensure all kids, not just certain kids,will be able to get their basic health needs met. I for one can go with one less latte each month.

A Green Heart in the Heart of Chicago

Me (center) with Greenheart manager Katherine and staff member Laura

Me (center) with Greenheart manager Katherine and staff member Laura

Chicago is a city teeming with fabulous restaurants, breathtaking architecture, interesting museums and little neighborhoods full of gorgeous boutiques. Strangely there is an incredible shortage of fair trade boutiques (any Chicago-based entrepreneurs want to take up the challenge?) but one shop has got it right and you don’t want to miss it.

I visited Greenheart a few weeks ago while visiting family in Chicago. The shop is amazing, I wanted to buy one of everything!  Greenheart is the kind of shop that has figured out the perfect harmony between good prices, great quality, and excellent style and selection.  I found the expected variety of fair trade goods – handbags, jewelry, some nice clothing lines, children’s toys and home decor. On top of that they’ve hunted down some truly unique finds such as ethical flip-flops (I’m loving my new pair!), scissors handmade in India, outdoor floor mats made from recycled materials, and the cutest umbrellas made from recycled plastic laundry detergent bottles.

All these great products were laid out in a warm, inviting space where my sister-in-law and I were treated to tea, fair trade chocolate and great conversation with the store staff. I walked away with my funky flipflops and an organic lipstick I love.  Now at Greenheart you’ll find a selection of Bambootique‘s messenger bags from South Africa, jewelry from Honduras and Nepal, journals from Thailand and more!

Greenheart is located on the north side of Chicago. They packed up and moved everything to an even bigger, better space just a week after I was there and I can’t wait to check it out next time I’m in Chicago. Find them at 1911 W. Division and tell them I sent you!

New Band I Love

Last week a friend invited me to International Justice Mission’s fundraising dinner. This Christian international organization is awe-inspiring with their mission to set enslaved and entrapped people free. They go under cover with the support of local authorities, gather enough evidence on human trafficking, child prostituion, and slave labor and, most dramatically, bust people out of wretched situations. They make sure the perpertrators get prosecuted and justice is served, all in the name of Christ.

Lamont Hiebert of the band Ten Shekel Shirt was at the dinner playing a few songs from the band’s new album, Jubilee.  They were great! The album was inspired by Lamont’s experience with IJM and his own non-profit, Love-146, which provides after-care for children set free through the work of IJM. Take a listen and see for yourself how beautiful and inspiring songs about injustice and ensuing freedom can be.

Some Good News For A Change

I am a self-confessed newspaper junkie and read it cover to cover every morning along with breakfast, coffee and my Bible Study. Hey, I have a two-year old so I’m up early and the mornings are loooong.

Lately the paper has been all doom and gloom but today it suddenly seemed like Pollyanna had joined The Oregonian’s staff.  Hooray, the unemployment rate has stayed steady at 12% rather than rising!  Our state budget is tight but hallelujah, we’re not cutting school days nor food stamps!

And the one I really liked? Kaiser Permanente is providing free health insurance for uninsured kids until they reach 18. It almost seems like a practical joke, too good to be true. Oregon used to cover most kids without insurance through our SCHIP program but that program has been scaled way back with the downturn in the economy. Now over 100,000 kids in Oregon lack health insurance. I want to praise, no hug, no kiss the people at Kaiser Permanente who decided to step up and do something about this travesty.

As great as this gift from Kaiser is to communities in Multnomah County, Beaverton and Salem (the areas where the coverage is being offered), it’s not enough nor, in my opinion, is it the private sector’s responsibility to make sure everyone is covered. Our government should make available affordable health insurance to every single child AND adult throughout the United States. We are the only Western nation not to do that and there’s no excuse for it.  We deprive ourselves and our neighbors of the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when we allow something as basic as healthcare determine a family’s financial stability.  I’m willing to pay for it and, as we get closer to the reality of universal coverage, I hope our nation steps up and others show their willingness to do so as well.

Strictly Organic Coffee Is Strictly Delicious

“Dark. Rich. Beautiful. Delicious.”woman-picking-cherries_thum

Response to a bar of chocolate perhaps? Nope, those are the words uttered by my coffee-loving husband as he ground fresh beans from Strictly Organic Coffee for our morning brew.  We’ve been sampling a different roast each morning for the past week and we’re in coffee bliss.  As I type I’m enjoying a deep, dark cup of Ethiopian Harar, one of my all-time-favorite varieties of coffee and especially exquisite from Strictly Organic. We’ve also loved their Organic Papau New Guinea blend and Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. Each type is perfectly roasted and I have to admit to even snacking on a few plain beans. They’re that good.

Strictly Organic roasts 100% organic, 100% fair trade certified beans at their roatery in beautiful Bend, Oregon. They have  a great little cafe as well as delivering their freshly roasted beans by bicycle to various retailers and restaurants around Bend.  The company reminds me of a central Oregon version of Portland’s favorite coffee roaster, Stumptown. Besides all the good things listed above, the company also pays health insurance to all employees.

Strictly Organic sent me the samples I’ve been trying for the past week and they’re sending up sample bags for EVERYONE who attends Bambootique’s Spring Trunk Show and Inventory Clearance next Saturday (April 18th).  Other great fair trade products on sample will include Theo chocolate, SLO Vanilla Chai Latte, Noble Coffee and Numi teas.  I hope to see you there!

Happy Holy Week

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“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Matthew 21:11

We’re now in the week leading up to Easter, the greatest celebration of the year for followers of Christ. Yesterday was Palm Sunday and our local paper ran an interesting article about fair trade palm branches. I had no idea unfair palm branches were an issue but, like so much that we use and buy without thinking twice, something joyous to us can be painful to others. Knowing the truth is a good thing.

Many of the palm branches churches order for Palm Sunday are harvested using unsustainable farming practices and workers are paid less than living wages. The Presbyterian Church has launched the Eco-Palms project to work with famers in Guatemala and Mexico. Farmers are paid 5-6x what they were previously getting, and the focus is on quality rather than quantity (typical  harvest of palm fronds can result in up to 50% being discarded because of trying to get the greatest volume possible).  The project also ensures the palms are harvested sustainably, meaning that the trees are not killed in the process.

This project seems like a wonderful idea and they are definitely getting the word out. This year over 600,000 palm fronds were sold to US churches through the project, up from 5000 palm fronds just 4 years ago when the project launched.  My church was even more creative. We didn’t use any palms at all, but instead used sword ferns harvested from members’ yards. Sword ferns are a native plant in Oregon so not only are we celebrating with our local version of palm fronds, no fossil fuels were burned to get them to us from far away.  Consider one of these options for your congregation next year!

While we’re thinking about integrating justice into Holy Week, don’t forget to look for fair trade chocolate goodies for any Easter baskets you get to fill. Why support child labor, slave labor, or ecological damage in the sweet treats you buy?  Check your local natural foods store for their selections of fair trade Easter chocolates. Yum!

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