When I was teaching US history at a private school in Manhattan we studied the terrible working conditions of the workers in the US in the early 20th century - and the circumstances that led to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire where more than one hundred women workers lost their lives - just blocks from where I was going to school at NYU. I was reminded of the 2012 fashion factory fire in Bangladesh that also killed more than one hundred and led to marches by thousands of garment workers about their safety. An article just over a year ago reported that H&M's 'best' factories still didn't have working fire exits (Quartz India). After the Triangle fire the 20th century marched forward and certain conditions for US workers were considered unacceptable. In today's 21st century as we march closer to real global citizenship - when will we effectively apply these values to those overseas workers who supply the west with its garments just as those New York women did a century ago?
One of the answers for me is Fairtrade - a growing movement that started with food products which is now delving into clothing with Fairtrade cotton. There is still along way to go. The powerful film The True Cost informs us how one in six people who work in the world form the fabric of the global fashion industry (One Million Women) binding all of us who wear clothing! We also eat and buy flowers! Millions work on these products and Fairtrade is deeply involved - helping workers across the globe.
As an international peace artist ten years ago I worked with flowers from across the globe, connecting them to statements on peace contributed to my Valentine Peace Project and I learned about the conditions of flower workers from Uganda to Colombia and even Gaza - the site of a once flourishing carnation industry strangled by the Israeli blockade from 2011 onwards, despite the Netherlands attempts to rescue it. Living in London I learned Fairtrade's involvement in 'conflict products' from Palestinian olive oil to raisins in Afghanistan - rebuilding what were once strong industries. I imagined child soldiers of Uganda finding employment opportunities in horticulture.
What steps could I take as a single artist to turn the massive international flower industry - with such 'innocent' products as roses and carnations - to activate social justice? I could bring awareness to the US consumer, particularly in New York where flowers are found at almost every corner bodega, through a basic tool of the industry. Stores wrap their bouquets in paper as protection and on this paper, working with artist designer Field Day USA, I can inform the buyer that most flowers imported to New York are from women workers of Colombia, where there is not yet a single Fairtrade certified flower farm. In contrast to Europe the US has almost no Fairtrade flowers. While other certifying labels exist - the rigor and international solidarity that make the Fairtrade label unique is shamefully missing. Therefore no strong regulating body is protecting these women of Colombia who provide between 70-80% of America's flowers and almost all its carnations.
The Fairtrade flower wrapping paper was carried in a couple Manhattan stores, and written about in Hyperallergic and Fairtrade America which helped me receive a grant to produce more of it- which will be featured at the Fairtrade Festival in Brooklyn May 20th. Meeting now with varied designers, traders and activists and living in Europe where the flower trade reaches into Africa and the Middle East as well as South America - it's my hope and plan that this artistic gesture reverberates to the citizen consumer to learn about the global Fairtrade movement, to care more about where their flowers are from and out of what conditions and to recognize that with every purchase we are participating in our own version of global citizenship. As Martin Luther King pointed out fifty years ago - "Before you finish breakfast you've depended on half the world" - we are inextricably interconnected to those who bring us our food, clothing and even flowers. It's time we paid more attention.