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Thursday, May 20, 2004 01:59 pm

Savvy shoppers

Three students, as part of a recent class project, did what thousands of Springfield grocery customers do every week: They compared prices, looking for the best deal.

But this exercise in savvy shopping had an edge. The three University of Illinois at Springfield students -- Tabitha Curran, Daniela Di Silvestro, and Laily Mesbah -- were on the hunt for "fair trade" products, goods produced with the goal of helping poor people in impoverished nations.

Fair-trade proponents believe consumers should buy products made by workers who receive a living wage and by companies that don't wreck the environment.

Global-trade issues have been on the minds of a number of UIS students for some time. They've visited factories in Nicaragua, held seminars, and pushed the university to adopt an anti-sweatshop code for its merchandise suppliers [Pete Sherman, "Making the grade," Oct. 16].

This project, conducted as part of assistant professor Heather Dell's "What is Power?" class, was a chance to gauge how good a job Springfield area merchants do in making fair-trade products available. The students' findings, they write, were "a bit discouraging."

Not only were few fair-trade products available on selected grocers' shelves, few managers or company representatives "knew what 'fair trade' was." Their survey found that just one grocery chain, Jewel-Osco, stocked a fair-trade product, Seattle's Best Coffee, an organic coffee priced at $7.99 per 12-oz. bag. At local Schnucks and Meijer stores, the women came up empty-handed.

When a spokesman at Schnucks headquarters in St. Louis told the students that most consumers are unwilling to pay the higher cost of fair-trade products, the students again went to market. At Jewel, the least expensive coffee was a store brand, priced at $1.79 per 13-oz. can. But the students found that a premium brand, Starbucks whole-bean coffee, was priced at $7.99 per 12-oz. bag. That was the same price as the store's only fair-trade brand.

"Higher cost should not be an issue if these grocery stores are selling other expenses goods at profit value," the students concluded.

Dell says fair-trade products are becoming more readily available, mainly in larger cities. Getting more in Springfield means building consumer demand -- and that requires the sort of learning that her students engaged in.

So how did the three women do on their class project?

"Extremely well," Dell says.

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