By M.L. Dehm HBJ Freelance Writer
EVERETT — When Ethical Choices Fair Trade and Freedom Store opened at 2612 Colby Ave. Oct. 22, it left a lot of passersby scratching their heads. But owner Leo Carpenter has been pleased with the response once he explained to them what his store is all about and what he sells.
“Fair trade products are those that are certified to contain no child labor and no slave labor,” Carpenter said. Fair Trade Certified products are proven to be manufactured using fair labor practices and fair labor wages.
People in the U.S. often don’t realize how many of today’s products are either manufactured with child labor or slave labor or contain resources that have been harvested with such labor. Some of the most common culprits are found in the apparel industry or in specialty food stuffs such as chocolate and coffee.
“Chocolate is one of the worst in the industry for child labor,” Carpenter said. He encourages people to watch a documentary called “The Dark Side of Chocolate” that reveals the human trafficking of small children as slave labor for the cocoa fields of Africa’s Ivory Coast, where 40 percent of the world’s cocoa is harvested.
The chocolate sold at Ethical Choices is Fair Trade Certified. That means that someone has taken the time to inspect the fields to make sure that no children are harvesting the beans that make that chocolate. It may cost a little bit more, but what’s 50 cents if it means you aren’t eating someone else’s tragedy? Carpenter asked.
Some of the products carried at Ethical Choices were made by people who were rescued from human trafficking, offering them a wage that can keep them from once again falling victim to traffickers.
“If I sell 20 of these scarves then I get to order 20 more of these scarves and someone gets to make 20 more of these scarves. They are 20 scarves away from susceptibility,” Carpenter said.
Currently there are an estimated 30 million people involved in modern-day slavery, commonly known as human trafficking, Carpenter said. Most of the victims are women and children. In some Third World countries, a daughter is viewed as a type of savings bond to be cashed in by her family upon her maturity or before.
Statistics list human trafficking as the No. 2 illegal trade worldwide. It falls between narcotics and the sale of illegal arms. But Carpenter firmly believes that everyone can combat the crisis simply by making ethical choices, hence the name of his business.
“Our consumerism is our advocacy,” he said.
Consumers can start by downloading the award-winning Free2Work app for iPhone or Android devices from the anti-trafficking organization Not For Sale. Scan the barcode of a product in the store and it shows a fair-trade rating for the company that produced it.
Consumers can also buy from stores like Ethical Choices. After selling floor coverings for 35 years, Carpenter, a regional director for Not For Sale, woke up one morning and decided to start a local store where people would know they were making good buying choices that helped others.
His wife, Laurie, is very supportive, Carpenter said. He’s proud to be located in the town where he grew up and even more pleased that the concept is being so well received by shoppers and fellow business owners on Colby Avenue.
Ethical Choices carries apparel, accessories, gift items, specialty foods and their own brand of coffee. They’re quality products at fair prices, Carpenter pointed out.
“I’m not looking for pity buying,” he said. His goal is simply to be able to meet his bills at the end of the month and to be able to reorder more products to help provide a sustainable future for others. The merchandise is attractive and doesn’t come with the guilt and human cost associated with slave labor.
Many of the products are considered green as well because they are made from recycled goods. Carpenter has beautiful evening bags that are made from recycled Indian saris. Some unusually textured woven handbags are made of old car seat belts. In this finished state, it’s hard to tell what the bags are made of but they wouldn’t look out of place in the most fashionable of venues, yet their makers are some of India’s poorest women supporting themselves through a sustainable craft.
Carpenter is looking forward to the holiday season. He knows that customers will enjoy the sustainable gifts and holiday decorations he has in stock. But he is looking forward even more to the new year when it will become clear whether Snohomish County is willing to go that little extra to offer hope to those affected by human trafficking.
“If we don’t change their circumstance then they are as susceptible tomorrow as they were yesterday,” Carpenter said. “We’ve got to provide them with brighter sustainable futures.”