Mustard Seed director Jessica Penner was influenced by travel, upbringing to support fair trade efforts

Sunday, January 20, 2013 | 5:19 p.m. CST; updated 5:38 p.m. CST, Monday, January 21, 2013
Mustard Seed Fair Trade is a Columbia-based nonprofit organization that sells fair trade goods.

COLUMBIA — An experience in Peru, as well as other travels, gives Jessica Penner confidence that fair trade can make a difference.

“I think fair trade can work with our current system,” Penner said. “We can modify our system to make it work for people.”

Penner is the director of Mustard Seed Fair Trade, a local nonprofit located at 25 S. Ninth St. The store sells home decor items, jewelry and clothing. All of the products are fair trade, meaning artisans and producers are fairly compensated for their work. The Mustard Seed purchases items from vendors that work directly with artisans in developing countries who have decent work conditions.

A normal business is about profit or the “bottom line," according to Penner. A fair trade model is different.

Penner remembers when she met Yvonna, one of her artisans, and her family who were living in one of the poorest sections of Lima, Peru last year.

“Basically, they’re living by a dump,” Penner said.

“They have just one daughter, and they put everything into her daughter,” Penner said. “They were giving all the resources she needed.”

The 17-year-old girl is studying environmental biology and environmental engineering and has dreams of traveling around the world, Penner said. Penner said that Yvonna's daughter told her that she hoped to be successful and contribute to fair trade efforts in the future.

About 70 percent of fair trade artisans are women. “Statistics have shown when women get money directly for their family, they are a lot more likely to spent it on education and feeding the families,” Penner said.

Penner’s parents met in South America as volunteers for the Mennonite Central Committee in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Penner was born in Pennsylvania, but lived her first four years in Bolivia. Her parents brought her along on volunteer activities in impoverished communities.

“I remember always noticing the poverty around me and understanding that some people didn't have access to a lot of things," she said.

Her desire to help those in need is something she attributes to growing up in a Mennonite community.

Jessica's mother, Faith Penner, remembers a trip to Cuzco, Peru, when Penner was in fourth grade.

"We were headed out to eat one evening and passed a mother begging on the street with her young daughter," Faith Penner said. "Jessica refused to eat her dinner until we bought an extra meal that she could take back and give to the mother."

But it wasn't until later on, at college, that she actively involved herself in social justice. Penner’s passion concentrated on fair trade, she said. In her senior year, she interned at a Ten Thousand Villages store, a nonprofit fair trade organization that was launched by Mennonite women in the 1940s.

Apart from Peru, Penner has traveled to Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Guatemala, Canada, England, Belgium, Poland and Germany.Penner is open to new cultures and meeting new people, she said.

“I want to work for something that I am really passionate about,” Penner said. “My parents always tells me, ‘Don’t go to work because you need the paychecks. Go find something you really have passion about. And do something what you feel it is right.'”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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Mark Foecking January 21, 2013 | 7:38 a.m.

One of the things that I've wondered, and the article really doesn't address, is how does Penner know that the vendors she buys from are really compensating their artisans fairly? I'm sure she can't visit all of them unannounced. I can see a lot of incentive for vendors to cut corners, sell things as fair trade when they're not, and basically enrich themselves at the expense of their artisans. And in some of those parts of the world, artisans may be very grateful to have any sort of market for their wares at all.

It's like the charge Michael Williams has made several times about fraud at Columbia Farmer's Market - unless a customer, or market management, goes to the Clark auctions and sees whether vendors are buying produce for resale there, one doesn't know whether the vendor grew it themselves or bought it for resale. Customers are taking it on faith that the rules are being followed, even though there's no real incentive for the market to expel vendors.


(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 21, 2013 | 8:52 a.m.

MarkF: Yes, I have seen various farmers' market vendors buying at the Mennonite and Amish auctions, so your statement is correct.

To clarify, tho, I see far more of the local roadside vendors there.

Your point is well taken about artisans. Unless one visits and is comfortable with what is said in private one-on-one meetings with the artisans (if you can arrange such a thing), how can you be sure fair wages are paid? I remember sitting on a beach in Cancun with these colorful-dressed local native ladies selling elegantly-made crocheted table cloths for twenty bucks; they seemed and appeared "independent." There were many of them on the beach and, at the end of the day, I observed ca. 25 of them piling onto an antiquated yellow school bus under the strict, not-so-nice eye of the asian equivalent of an SS officer. Any collected monies were given to him at the step-up into the bus. I watched it happen.

It is a human trait to believe the guy down the street because you "think" you know him, but not the food wholesaler in Chicago or farmer in the Imperial Valley. "Knowing" the guy down the street makes us "feel" in control when, in fact, there is no control whatsoever over what we are told. Maybe the feeling of "control" stems from our perception of recourse....that we at least have someone to yell at if things go awry. Given the various home improvement scams going on around town, you'd think we'd learn such "familiarity" isn't always what it seems.

And then, of course, we have the "our politicians are more trustworthy than yours" example.

Things aren't always as they seem, and I share your skepticism.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 21, 2013 | 9:00 a.m.

MarkF: One of my best friends used to own shares in the Fortuna mennonite auction house. In addition to the evident signs that ANY goods produced further than a 100 mile radius had to be declared as such, the sellers also had to declare publicly if their produce had been shipped refrigerated or frozen. Layering good produce over not-so-good would get you expelled in a real hurry as would improperly grading your goods (e.g., #1s versus #2s).

Those folks know they have a good thing going, and there is a HUGE incentive to give the boot to anyone breaking the rules.

(Report Comment)

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