By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Gallup’s October spending forecast for the holiday season predicts on average, Americans will spend $781 per person on gifts in 2014.
Members of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Niskayuna hope you’ll think carefully about each of those dollars before fighting for a parking space at the mall this year.
The reason? Social justice, a concept that members of the Social Justice Ministry at Saint Kateri say is intimately linked to just about everything we buy.
“We are really concerned about the welfare of the producer,” said Brenda Rosenbaum, founder of the Mayan Hands fair trade organization.
Rosenbaum moved to the United States from her native Guatemala in 1980. She started Mayan Hands to help artisans in her home country find a market where they would be paid fairly for their work.
“Most women weave and sell below cost,” she said. “If they were paid a fair wage there would not be as much poverty. They have chronic malnutrition. They’re desperate.”
Rosenbaum said the problem in Guatemala is that there are too many weavers and artisans, and not enough people to buy their products. But problems vary by industry and location. Many mass-produced items like clothing and toys, for example, are created in factories where working conditions are dangerous and child labor is not regulated.
“This is going on all over the world,” she said. “Producers are being exploited.”
Members of the Social Justice Ministry said learning about the daily challenges laborers face to mass-produce goods changed the way they shop.
“It’s a matter of making a conscious decision and thinking about what the money is being used for,” member Diane Yoder said. “What we’re trying to provide is an alternative to the mall.”
In Guatemala, Mayan Hands has already made a difference for the women who create purses, scarves, baskets, toys, and other crafts. They’ve become outspoken, negotiating confidently for a fair price, and their children are able to go to school instead of working.
“Not only is it a livelihood, but the women come together to learn,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s almost a support group for them.”
Rosenbaum is just one of numerous vendors who will sell holiday presents with a conscience on Nov. 15 and 16. Alongside her baskets, scarves, and toys will be fair trade jewelry, coffee, chocolate, hats, alpaca goods, cellphone and tablet pouches, and Christmas ornaments made of shells, glass, and recycled paper — just to name a small sampling. The goods come from all over the world.
Elaine Bair, a member of the Social Justice Ministry and longtime collaborator on the annual sale, said the non-traditional options helped her answer a very common question.
“What do you give people who have everything they need?” she asked.
She faced that question while searching for a gift to send her brother for his 35th wedding anniversary. In the past, she’d sent him tokens like fruit jellies from Africa, which he loved. But most recently, she opted for a different route: alternative giving.
Alternative giving is the practice of making a donation in someone’s name, rather than buying and wrapping a physical item. Alternative gifts are a staple of the Social Justice Ministry’s annual sale. The ministry members facilitate gifts to international charities like Heifer International, which allows people to make a symbolic gift like a cow or chicken, and local organizations like the Regional Food Bank.
These atypical presents come with an artistic greeting card and a serious case of the warm fuzzies.
“I think they were rather touched by it,” Bair said of her brother and his wife.
Fair trade gifts and alternative options seem to be gaining recognition, but are nowhere near mainstream yet. Rosenbaum estimates just $1 million of the $57 million in craft goods Guatemala exports each year are fair trade.
But Bair said she thinks awareness is on the rise when it comes to the power of a purchase.
“When I was a young person I didn’t have much feel for the situations of others,” she said. Now, she does, and she knows many young people who are more tuned in than she was.
Part of the mission of fair trade and alternative giving opportunities is to improve awareness, and as a result, opportunities to buy are becoming more accessible.
In addition to sales like the one at Saint Kateri, there are stores like Ten Thousand Villages and even a catalogue, which reads like a cross between L.L.Bean and Pottery Barn, distributed through an organization called SERRV.
Bair said it’s not just altruism that motivates people to put their holiday spending money toward fair trade and alternative options.
“The uniqueness of the gifts are a big part of it,” she said, showing off a purple scarf she got at last year’s fair trade sale.
“This was made by a tribal group in India,” she said proudly.
Rosenbaum knows those personal connections are important, which is why goods created by Mayan Hands craftswomen are signed as pieces of art.
One member of the Social Justice ministry, Ron Severson, said the people who create the fair trade gifts are the reason they’re so special.
“It’s not just buying a product. There’s a relationship, even though you may not ever meet that person,” he said.
Fair Trade and Alternative Giving Sale
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 15; 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16
Where: St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish Center, 2216 Rosa Road, Schenectady
Information: 346-6137 ext. 243