Professor with international ties helps promote fair trade practices at MSU
Every day, thousands of MSU students filter through the cafeterias to grab their breakfast and a cup of coffee. They grab the black mugs stacked by the beverage machines, plop them under the metal canisters labeled “French Roast” or “Spartan Green” and flip the switch to fill them up.
This happens day in and day out, but what few realize is that this coffee is fair trade, meaning it’s ethically sourced and promotes growth for farmers in developing countries around the world.
Were it not for a jovial Eli Broad College of Business professor Paulette Stenzel, MSU’s coffee and the rest of its involvement in the fair trade movement might not be where it is today.
“I came to MSU in 1982, so I came very young,” Stenzel said. “It’s kind of gradually crept in from different directions. I wouldn’t call myself ‘the person’ but, to my knowledge, I’m the person who has for 25, 26 years now been here, stayed here and (is) consistently writing and speaking about it.”
A professor of sustainability and international business law, Stenzel began her career by writing about environmental law.
Going into the 1990s, MSU was heavily developing its international presence, prompting Stenzel to take advantage of her extensive international background.
“I studied in France, Colombia, Mexico long before I came here and when (the North American Free Trade Agreement) came along, I saw an opportunity to examine the international ramifications of our environmental regulation, or lack thereof,” she said.
Fluent in French and Spanish, much of Stenzel’s research and outreach projects have been located in Central America, in countries such as Nicaragua and Guatemala.
Her most recent research trip took her to Cuba, an opportunity that opened up with thawing relations between the United States and the island country.
Though she has worked with major organizations such as the World Trade Organization, Stenzel is most proud of her work with smaller scale programs like As Green As It Gets, Esperanza en Accion, otherwise known as Hope in Action, and El Rosal, an all-women’s cooperative located in the Intag region of Ecuador.
Many of these programs aim to empower struggling communities by providing them financial and physical resources to make them first self-sufficient and then stable enough to sell their goods on the market at a fair price.
“The very first group (As Green As It Gets) started with was in a town called San Miguel Escobar, they started with nine coffee farmers, they’re up to about 25 now, and they pay those farmers $8 a pound,” Stenzel said.
Those are unprecedented prices, Stenzel said, acknowledging that the average price per pound for fair trade coffee farmers is around $2.25. If they’re working with a large corporation, that price can go as low as 25 to 35 cents per pound.
The impact of her dedication and outreach isn’t exclusive to developing nations. Stenzel repeatedly brings in examples of fair trade goods into her class and regularly discusses the concept of fair trade in her Business, Law and Ethics course.
Mitchell Ostrowski, a supply chain management senior, currently works as Stenzel’s teaching assistant. During his time at MSU, he has ended up taking all three of Stenzel’s courses, a decision he said has been immeasurably beneficial.
“Especially for the senior level classes she’ll bring in fair trade chocolate and coffee, and really she gets it all from East Lansing Food Cooperative,” Ostrowski said. “Recently, I’ve actually been shopping there myself because she stresses just how important it is to help these lower-income farmers around the world and even local farmers.”
Not only has her teaching method changed Ostrowski’s shopping habits, but it’s also motivated him to pursue a law degree working with environmental issues. He credits this decision largely in part to the ethics courses he’s taken with Stenzel.
“I would say she wants students to take away that ethical decision making is possibly the most important part of being a good businessperson. ... She makes you want to do good in the world,” he said.
Along with her fieldwork and teaching, Stenzel also advises student groups focused on fair trade practices and ethical business practices. One such group is the Spartan Global Development Fund, or SGDF, a non-profit organization that works with fair trade groups like As Green As It Gets to finance development projects.
SGDF started out in the summer of 2009 with an initial contribution of $25 each from its four founders. One of those founders, Michael Thelen, approached Stenzel early on as an adviser for the group.
“It was my goal at the outset to find someone who could connect both the background in business, but that had a demonstrated drive and passion for economic development,” Thelen said.
From the very beginning, Thelen said, Stenzel was interested in helping out with the program. One of the biggest concerns Stenzel stressed at the start of SGDF was laying down a foundation for the program’s continued success, building a legacy essentially.
“Her role has often been that of a keeper of the flame. ... In many ways sort of a purpose-driven influencer of (SGDF’s) vision,” he said.
Even with such a lengthy and influential career, Stenzel said her work would never be finished.
“I’ll die fighting for fair trade and micro finance and for social equity,” she said with a laugh and smile on her face.