UI becomes first fair-trade university in the Big Ten

One student organization at the University of Iowa has worked for over a year to help it become a fair-trade university, and recently succeeded in its goal.


Jeff Sigmund

Old Capital as seen on April 13, 2020.

Caroline Price, News Reporter

After a two-year effort from a University of Iowa student organization, the UI is now the first certified fair-trade university of the Big Ten — for its emphasis on adequate wages for workers and promoting sustainability.

Fair Trade at Iowa aimed to set the UI on a trajectory toward the certification in fall 2018, when the student group first formed.

“Fair trade … emphasizes the importance of social and environmental standards and practices,” said Lauryn Schnack, a member of the organization, in an email to The Daily Iowan. “It is a multi-tiered concept, but truly comes back to humanity and compassion.”

Zachary Rochester, regional fellow for fair-trade campaigns, said that fair trade traditionally focuses on farmers and artisans in rural or underdeveloped areas. Rochester added that fair trade is understanding that people should be adequately paid for the work they complete.

“I’m a really passionate advocate for social justice, and I really care about connecting our local actions with things that have international impact and fair trade is one of those,” Rochester said.

Rochester said that being a fair-trade university can help to strengthen the UI’s connection to the global food chain, and that Iowa City is already strong in its emphasis on local purchasing.

“Fair trade is a system that embodies what we should expect from our food systems and supply chains and it’s really easy for us and the rest of the world to be really disconnected,” Rochester said. “Every time we pick up a product, there are thousands of hands that had to be involved in that process.”

RELATED: New student organization wants to bring fair trade to the UI

Jill Irvin, University Dining director, said that to comply with the rules of fair trade, there have to be two fair-trade menu items at every location on campus that sells food. That includes UI marketplaces, C-stores, and the Food for Thought cafe in the Main Library on campus.

“We’re always interested in hearing from students about the things that are important to them,” Irvin said. “We’re always out there trying to evaluate items, menus, options, and services that can bring value to students and goals of theirs.”

Rochester said that a primary purpose of the campaign is to reach out to other universities. Even though now is not an ideal time to start brand new campaigns, there are some other schools that already have their own campaigns that are hard at work.

UI Office of Sustainability and Environment Director Stratis Giannakouros is happy with the progress but believes there is still a lot to do. This is just a start, he said.

RELATED: UISG passes resolution supporting fair trade at UI

“Especially now, coming out of the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s really important to think about where our local folks are and how they’re struggling,” Giannakouros said. “And making sure that our dollars, where we can, go towards our local businesses and our local farmers.”

Irvin said that with every change there is a financial impact. When changes are made, it’s important to evaluate them by considering what is important to students and how intense the financial impact will be.

“Fair trade is not simply a designation, or a gold star, or a title. It is a belief and a vision,” Schnack said. “We are far from done with our work to make the University of Iowa a better university both in current worker relations and in international and domestic purchasing practices.”

Giannakouros hopes this announcement will have a domino effect on other Big Ten universities.

“We’re the first in the Big Ten to do this,” Giannakouros said. “It’s not a huge challenge to get it done, I think that once we tell our story, students from other universities will ask why they’re not also doing this.”

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