Allen Joseph Has a Passion for Trading Fair

Trading FairAllen Joseph has a passion for a way to buy that’s good for the Earth, and the people who live on itBy Donna Meredith

Allen Joseph calls “fair trade” the world’s most important issue. If that’s a term you’ve heard of, but aren’t quite sure what it entails, you aren’t alone.

Let’s put it this way: Would you be willing to pay a few cents more for your cup of coffee, knowing that the farmer in South America who grew the beans was using environmentally friendly growing methods?

Joseph, Florida’s first wholesaler of fair trade goods, has scouted the world looking to buy goods that have not harmed the environment during production and which will provide a decent living for the individuals who grew or made them. His Tallahassee-based company, Living Wage, supplies 40 different businesses with such imports.

When any company produces goods cheaply by paying poor wages and eliminating environmental standards, businesses with higher standards suffer, says Joseph. To compete, companies either have to move their factories to those countries making goods on the cheap or lower their own standards.

Joseph and his wife, Cindy, spent a year overseas finding sources of goods to start their wholesale fair-trade business. They were scheduled to leave the United States on Sept. 20, 2001, but were delayed a month by  concerns with overseas travel after the World Trade Center attacks. They lived in Vietnam for a year and traveled through Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and China. On their trip, they met people and observed how they made their products, making sure the methods were environmentally sound.

As the couple searched for goods to offer wholesale, they were again affected by a terrorist attack — this time on the front line — that would make their journey even more purposeful. They were en route to a café in Bali for dinner when their driver stopped for a quick cigarette break. As they got under way again, the café intersection in front of them exploded, bodies tossed through the air as if they were weightless.

“If our driver hadn’t stopped for a smoke, we probably would have been right behind the car that had the bomb, or we might have been sitting in the café that was destroyed,” Joseph said.

The Josephs were able to help five Balinese women who were widowed in that Al Qaeda bombing by partnering with a businesswoman who taught the widows to make jewelry that they now sell in the United States.

Today, more than 800,000 households earn a living from fair trade production, according to the Fair Trade Federation.

“The EU, Japan and Australia are already ahead of us on this issue,” says Joseph, who has worked on economic development issues for the Florida Legislature, Florida State University and Congress. A member of the Fair Trade Federation board, he has traveled to 29 countries studying trade policy.

Rapid globalization caused many of the problems the U.S. faces today because political and economic structures haven’t changed along with international trade.

“Economic rules have to apply across all countries,” Joseph said.

According to Joseph, that doesn’t mean closed markets and high tariffs. Instead, he promotes what he calls standard-based trade.

“Twenty years ago, we opened up trade to countries that don’t have high standards,” he says. “It hurts those that do. If you don’t impose standards on everything imported, you push jobs and pollution abroad.”

What American consumers gained with completely open markets was cheap goods and the economic expansion of the 1990s, but they lost environmental controls over industry and high-paying jobs. During the run-up to the Olympic Games in China, Americans got a glimpse of pollution problems overseas. Scares over tainted pet food and infant formula, as well as lead in toys, illustrate the need for enforced quality standards.

Joseph links purchasers to stores selling everything from sporting goods to musical instruments through his Web site, n