Smile Politely

Making Valentine’s Day sweeter for everyone

Sad but true, many traditional Valentine’s Day gifts—flowers, chocolate, and jewelry—involve exploited labor and environmental degradation which can suck the sweetness right out of the holiday. However, this year you have several local options for keeping it sweeter for everyone involved.

During the summer, you can get organic flowers picked by workers earning fair wages from the Urbana Market at the Square. But, by February, most of the flowers in the local shops were grown in California, Central and South America, and Europe with pesticides and often picked by workers earning substandard wages.

However, this year you can buy fair trade roses at Common Ground Food Coop in Urbana, as well as forsythia, curly willow, and quince branches from Fleurish in Champaign which sources them from an organic farm in Oregon.

Fair Trade Chocolate
As with coffee, fair trade has historically meant that farmers get a fair price for their products. However, a universally accepted definition of “fair trade” does not exist despite the fact that there a number of organizations providing fair trade certification. Additionally, the cost of certification is out of the reach of many small farmers who are producing under fair trade standards. So what do you do about chocolate, which is often produced at a very high human cost?

Knowing how your chocolate beans were grown and their country of origin is one of the best ways to ensure that you are not contributing to slavery, child labor and other inhumane practices.

Most organic chocolate beans are grown in Central and South America where slavery is not an issue. However, this is not the case with chocolate from Africa’s Côte d’Ivoire / Ivory Coast.

The Food Empowerment Project (FEP) conducted a survey of chocolate companies to determine which were fair trade sourcing. Since Nestle and Mars do not produce vegan products, they are not on the FEP’s list. Unfortunately, Chicago-based Vosges is on the naughty list for nondisclosure, joined by Clif, Moonstruck, and Trader Joe’s.

FEP felt comfortable recommending chocolate from Equal Exchange, Frontier, Newman’s Own, Rapunzel and Theo which are carried at Common Ground Food Coop, Strawberry Fields and World Harvest. While FEP could not recommend brands like Callebut, Chocolove, Divine, Guittard, Lake Champlain, Pangea and Terra Nostra, these companies are at least working on the issues in Africa in various ways. You can see FEP’s complete list on its website.

The 4 Cs will get you a pretty stone, but they may not keep the recipient from having blood on his or her hand. Blood or conflict diamonds are used to finance wars and fund the activity of warlords, most often in Africa, which sources two-thirds of the world’s diamonds. Though the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme was supposed to curtail the sale of blood diamonds from countries like Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, it is far from perfect due to smuggling, bribes and other corruption.

Some colored gems are not much better. Myanmar rubies support the crushing military regime of that country and many Madagascar sapphires are mined by children.

Gold, much of which hails from the eastern Congo, also can be problematic. Mines are often worked by children and adults forced by gunmen to endure up to 48-hour shifts in unstable shafts subject to mudslides and collapse. Peru also is home to mines worked by children.

Of course all of this is to say nothing of the environmental damage from mining which can include deforestation, soil erosion and the tainting of local water supplies. A single gold ring produces over 20 tons of waste during production.

So what are your options? Antique, estate and vintage jewelry can be a good way to avoid stones that are funding modern conflicts. Gold from existing pieces also can be reused. New diamonds from Canada, as well as those from Namibia and Botswana, tend to be mined without violence. Though, only diamonds from Canada meet the standards of the Conflict Free Diamond Council, as it relies on laser engraving on the stones themselves for tracking.

If you are purchasing a diamond or other gemstone this holiday, you should be able to ask the jeweler the following questions:

Do you know where this gemstone came from?
Can you show me a written guarantee from your supplier stating that this stone is conflict free?

If you aren’t satisfied with the answers you may need to find another stone or another jeweler. If you have existing jewelry pieces, both Robert’s and Christopher’s in downtown Champaign can design new ones that reuse the gemstones and minerals.

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