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New York Action Center: Shop for Change Fair Trade Trunk Show

United States, May 19, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Heather Mangrum/Mercy Corps  </span>
    At the trunk show, one customer said, “I learned so much and came away with a lot of beautiful things. This is much more fun than just writing a check!” Photo: Heather Mangrum/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Heather Mangrum/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Some of the colorful items that were for sale at the Action Center's Fair Trade Trunk Show. Photo: Heather Mangrum/Mercy Corps

Like most New Yorkers, I LOVE to shop. Never mind baseball — snagging a bag of fantastic finds and super bargains is indeed our city’s favorite pastime.

Yet my knowledge of Fair Trade was mostly limited to the coffee and chocolate displays at Whole Foods. While the jewelry, bags, scarves and baskets on display at the New York Action Center are cute, I never made the Fair Trade connection.

One morning, one of our Battery Park City neighbors visited the Action Center and noticed a set of colorful nesting bowls on display. Noticed is actually too mild a term: she went wild over it! On hearing the story of the bowls — made by South African women out of discarded newspapers and painted in traditional Shwe Shwe patterns, with proceeds supporting living wages for women artisans and benefiting AIDS education in poor South African communities — she immediately whipped out her credit card to purchase the set.

“These are amazing! And the story behind them is so incredible,” she noted, trying on a necklace from Cambodia she eventually added to her purchase. “I had no idea you had stuff like this here.”

“Hmmm…shopping as an action,” I thought. And with that a Fair Trade Trunk Show was born.

As part of a month-long celebration of World Fair Trade Day, the Action Center took its selection of Fair Trade, eco-friendly fashion and home accessories on the road. The goal: to show New Yorkers that the simple act of shopping can be a meaningful, highly impactful action in the fight against world hunger and poverty.

We partnered with Counter, a trendy vegetarian bistro in the East Village which specializes in dishes made with sustainably-grown ingredients and features an extensive selection of organic wines, beers and cocktails. Gourmet food, environmentally-friendly drinks, and stylish Fair Trade fashion — this was conscious consumerism at its finest!

Dozens of shoppers turned out for this three-hour cocktail event including supporters of the Action Center, Mercy Corps donors and new friends from the neighborhood and around the city.

My friend Leslie came by to browse for a Mother’s Day gift. Her eyes wandered among the colorful necklaces, bags and hand-woven baskets, but nothing seemed to grab her. Then I showed her one of the reusable market bags. What she saw was a sort of laminated zip-pouch. “What’s that?” she asked, skeptical.

I opened it to reveal a pretty blue and brown batik print cloth bag inside. “Oh wow,” she ventured. “That’s kind of cool.”

I went on to explain that the bag was made from recaptured cotton sarongs and the outer pouch, which serves as a reinforced base when the bag was opened, was made from recycled rice bags covered with the newspaper comics. Small enough to fit in a purse, yet sturdy enough to carry a good day’s shopping, each one-of-a-kind bag features tribal patterns on trend of spring. Each purchase helped provide a living wage for women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as well as supported programs for street children, at high risk of violence, trafficking and prostitution.

“Sold!”

Later, over a glass of biodynamic Tiamo Sangiovese, Leslie thanked me for inviting her to the event. “This was so much fun and much more than I expected,” she explained. “I had no idea this stuff would be so cool and had such an important impact on the lives of women. What a great way to celebrate Mother’s Day!”

By the end of the evening, the New York Action Center raised $800 to support its programming — as well as dozens of new names to add to its Friends List — and a heightened, enthusiastic awareness of what the Action Center has to offer. Shoppers came away with bags full of fantastic finds, a great feeling, and most important, a better understanding of how simple choices can make an important difference in the fight against hunger and poverty.