By SARA ARTHURS - Fair trade is a business model emphasizing paying a living wage to artisans or farmers in developing countries. Phil Zimmerly, owner of Common Grounds coffee shop in Bluffton, described it as a decision of conscience to choose an alternative to sweatshops. Common Grounds serves only fair trade coffee in its store, although its wholesale coffee sales include both fair trade and non-fair trade coffee. - Bluffton has been declared a "fair trade town," which means it has a certain number of stores selling fair trade items per capita.

By SARA ARTHURS - Fair trade is a business model emphasizing paying a living wage to artisans or farmers in developing countries. Phil Zimmerly, owner of Common Grounds coffee shop in Bluffton, described it as a decision of conscience to choose an alternative to sweatshops. Common Grounds serves only fair trade coffee in its store, although its wholesale coffee sales include both fair trade and non-fair trade coffee. - Bluffton has been declared a "fair trade town," which means it has a certain number of stores selling fair trade items per capita.

In essence, when an item is sold as fair trade it means the person who made the item gets what they need to cover their expenses and make a living, said Aphaphanh Nussbaum, store manager at Ten Thousand Villages. In addition, Ten Thousand Villages' buyers develop ongoing relationships with the artisans in more than 38 countries, so they know they will have a steady stream of income rather than just the occasional sale.

Ten Thousand Villages "believes strongly" in paying the artisans up front, said Karen Klassen Harder, a University of Bluffton economics professor and Ten Thousand Villages board member. This means the artisan doesn't have to take out a loan to cover the costs of making their goods. If an item is sold at a discount at Ten Thousand Villages' store, that doesn't affect the price the artisan receives.

If the store makes any profit, it is donated back to the artisans. Nussbaum is the only paid employee. She said the volunteers who make up the rest of the store's staff are eager to be there although they don't get paid.

Artisans are encouraged to use environmentally friendly methods, such as using fast-growing wood rather than tearing down trees, or making items from recycled newspaper or native shells.

Nussbaum has met some of the artisans at conferences and has learned that their income not only helps themselves but their communities. Some tell her that they've used their proceeds to build a village well. Klassen Harder has a background working in developing countries and knew artisans in Bangladesh who were able to put a roof over their head and send their children to school.

Ten Thousand Villages started as a thrift store and gift store. Today there are Ten Thousand Villages stores in bigger cities, but it's rare that a town the size of Bluffton can support one, Nussbaum said. Customers come from throughout northwestern Ohio and farther. Bluffton's store will celebrate its 40th anniversary in January.

Jewelry is particularly popular and, as Christmas nears, the store sells a lot of ornaments and Nativity scenes.

Another bestseller is an eyeglass holder, made from shesham wood in India.

Klassen Harder said Ten Thousand Villages provides a market for artisans to sell their goods in ways that otherwise wouldn't be available.

Items sold are accompanied with information giving the context in which they are made. "Ten Thousand Villages helps to put a face" on residents of these countries, she said.

Jonathan Andreas, a Bluffton University associate professor of economics, said Ten Thousand Villages was among the "early pioneers of the movement," before the term "fair trade" was invented. He has visited Ten Thousand Villages sites in the Philippines, where he met artisans working in a "desperately poor" village. It was the kind of town, he said, where just having a saw would increase productivity as there were so few tools available. He said it's a reminder that people should know "there's tremendous poverty in the world."

And, he said, there's a huge rate of child mortality due to poverty and malnutrition. So he believes fair trade efforts can not only improve economies but play a role in saving lives.

Andreas said Ten Thousand Villages fills a niche that did not exist before, as the artisans in poor countries had no way of getting their goods to a market where they could earn a profit on them.

"They really invented the market," he said.

Andreas, too, noted Ten Thousand Villages' mission of education, educating the artisans on how to reach the market and also educating Americans about Third World issues and poverty.

Andreas attended a few of the meetings several years ago when Bluffton was seeking to become a fair trade town.

Wendy Chappell-Dick, a community organizer who was instrumental in getting the designation, said there have been fair trade efforts all over the community, including Bluffton University's food service department serving fair trade coffee.

"I think Ten Thousand Villages is a huge influencer," she said.

Bluffton was the first fair trade town in Ohio but getting the designation was "really easy" since a lot of it was already in place, Chappell-Dick said.

She would like to see more fair trade goods sold in Bluffton, such as flowers and wine.

"There's quite a bit of fair trade wine," she said.

Chappell-Dick said there is also a connection between fair trade and efforts to combat human trafficking, as once girls are rescued from traffickers they need a way to earn a living. Her Girl Scout troop was involved with a project where girls who had escaped traffickers made and sold bracelets.

Zimmerly said selling fair trade coffee is about doing "what's right."

"It's kind of a gut feeling," he said.

While there's growing awareness of clothing made in sweatshops there isn't as much attention given to coffee, but it is the second-most commonly traded commodity in the world, after oil and gas.

Coffee beans are the pit of a fruit like a cherry. They are green when they arrive at Common Grounds in 156-pound bags, then roasted. Zimmerly gets beans from all over the world, including Mexico, Honduras, Ethiopia, Peru, Colombia and Brazil. Coffee from different regions has different flavors and new flavor combinations can be created by blending beans from different countries.

Andreas said fair trade coffee is different from the Ten Thousand Villages approach in that it isn't creating a new market, and he feels Ten Thousand Villages is more effective in economic development. There is "terrible poverty" in regions where coffee is grown and fair trade coffee companies pay workers a higher wage for producing the coffee. Coffee consumers are willing to pay slightly more for their coffee to support this.