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One woman's quest to bring the concept of 'fair trade' to Taiwan

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- It might sound like the straightforward story of a young entrepreneur: a loving couple set up a cafe promoting social responsibility and healthy products in Taipei, and their effort gains traction in a society increasingly conscious of civic participation, social righteousness and food safety.

But the story of OKOGREEN, Taiwan's first Fairtrade International-certified trading company founded by Yu Wan-ju (余宛如), her husband Xu Wen-yen (徐文彥) and their friend, is anything but straightforward.

“Fair trade was still a new idea to many at the time I started my business. People don't understand what it is,” Yu told The China Post. “My family was worried; some thought it's a 'loser's move' to start a cafe that makes no money.”

In part due to the resemblance of the Fairtrade International logo to the Taoist symbol for Tai Chi, “people even wondered if I was in some kind of cult,” Yu said with a smile.

Yu started her enterprise in an unlikely place — Wikipedia.

In 2006, Yu and Xu, her then-boyfriend, started working on a Chinese entry on fair trade in the online encyclopedia. Yu was then a marketing manager at an international skincare brand, and Xu, with long-term experience in social involvement, was working in the green industry.

“We wanted to introduce the idea of fair trade to Taiwan but we realized there was a lack of Chinese material,” Yu explained. Yu was first exposed to the idea in a summer study tour in the U.S. that she took after graduating from high school. There, she witnessed protests again “blood coffee,” the production and sale of coffee that results in the exploitation of farmers.

It was, however, not merely the sense of social responsibility that drew her to fair trade. Seeing the strong growth posted by fair-trade businesses in the global market, Yu saw potential.

“Unlike the complexity of systems certifying organic food, fair trade is organized behind a unified, practical system with an easy-to-spot symbol,” said Yu, referring to Fairtrade International.

Fair trade is a social movement aiming at helping producers in developing countries by establishing better trading conditions and promoting sustainability. Fair trade organizations such as Fairtrade International, one of the field's major players, certify products from the developing world and international traders that meet fair-trade standards, which usually include higher payments to exporters as well as higher social and environmental requirements.

Fairtrade International, for example, provides fair-trade labels to developing countries' exports, such as bananas, cocoa, coffee, cotton, dried fruit, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, honey, juices, nuts, oil seeds, purees, quinoa, soybeans, pulses, rice, herbs, spices, sugar, tea and wine. It also provides certification for non-food products such as cotton, cut flowers, ornamental plants and sports equipment.

Certified producers must meet a set of standards. They must be made by small-scale producers. The majority of the producers must be small stakeholders who run their farm mainly by using their own and their family's labor and don't depend on hired workers all the time. Profits should be equally distributed among the producers and members should adopt a democratic decision-making process. The standards also require union rights and wages equal to or higher than the regional average or legal minimal wage.

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'Red-faced King of Go' overcomes challenges, cultivates local talent
Yu Wan-ju, co-founder of OKOGREEN, poses for a photo in front of a painting inspired by the Fairtrade International label at Fair Market in Taipei on Friday, Dec. 6.

(Alan Fong, ...

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