Monday, March 24, 2008

Trendy Korean shopping – fair enough?

We walked around down town, passing by Kumnamno on the way home after another meal. It was early on in a warm autumnal evening in late 2001. We were in a jubilant mood from the great Gwangju food, the approach of the Christmas festive season, and with it a break at the end of our years’ contracts. We were happy with life in Gwangju… except for one thing. Brian was a coffee drinker and a traveller, and had sampled the best of international espresso culture in Italy and elsewhere. As we wandered happily along that night he mentioned how interesting it was that Koreans seemed content to drink so much hazelnut coffee.

You can imagine his excitement when espresso coffee shops suddenly started appearing around town. Within a week of our conversation that night we noticed the first new café near our school. The very sight of a real coffee machine and the strong aroma of freshly ground coffee beans excited Brian, and he quickly befriended the owner/operator on his daily visits. Life suddenly seemed complete. Gwangju was re-established as the centre of the universe and all that was cool.

Suddenly, before and after the 2002 World Cup, faster than you can say: “DDR!” lots of new trends appeared. A whole squad of local and international chain coffee shops opened down town and throughout the country. The Korean doughnuts craze began, bagels mysteriously appeared in quality bread stores, and shiny movie multiplexes sprouted and started showing good local films. Fortunately, the whole peroxide-hair colour thing was more of a quick fad and less of a lasting trend. More recently high quality, high percentage chocolate has been confirmed as the latest health-food elixir.

The success of these trends proves Korea is a capable capitalist country of diligent shopaholics and savvy style-spotters. It was with great surprise then that I recently found a major shopping trend that has been developing in many nations overseas but remains new to Korea: ‘fair trade’. When home at the end of last year I found high quality, high percentage fair trade chocolate in the supermarkets; fair trade coffee brands in common coffee shops, and a new café chain store specialising in fair trade coffee. Even the local shop from the national fair trade chain store has moved from a cheap-rent street to an upmarket corner down town.

There are many reasons why Korea could and should take up the fair trade trend. Korea is a newly developed nation, so now has a large middle class who can afford to pay the ‘premium,’ or relatively high prices of fair trade products. Officially certified fair trade products are consistently of the highest quality. Fair trade agricultural produce is usually organic which goes well with Korea’s popular well-being trend. Some say buying fair trade is a way to subvert or resist the power of multinational corporations and their corrupt western governments who try to force FTAs on countries like Korea. Finally, Korea is well placed to support fair trade producers in nearby countries in the Asia-Pacific region, for example by importing fair trade bananas or sugar from the Philippines, fair trade tea from Nepal, or fair trade coffee or honey from Vietnam.

So as you savour some chocolate, or sip your favourite drink from a trendy new Gwangju café this month, ask yourself how much the farmers who grew the beans were paid for all their labour; or even better, ask the shop manager or staff. Do they know anything about the new fair trade trend? If not, give them a copy of Gwangju News next month when there will be a special feature article on the topic. You could also invite them to the special Saturday afternoon talk session on May 10th, which is World Fair Trade Day for 2008. Cynics, supporters, trend-spotters, and anyone curious for a sample of fair trade tea, coffee or chocolate are welcome.


Edited version published in Gwangju News - Volume 8, Issue 3 - March, 2008.

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