(pictured: the Rev. Janet Grill of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Shadyside started using Eco-Palms in an effort to get churches to use sustainable fronds for Palm Sunday.
Lutheran World Relief was the first church agency on board. In a pilot project in Minnesota, 5,000 Eco-Palms were sold. The next year they sold 70,000 nationwide. Since then, the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Committee on Relief and Catholic Relief Services have joined.
Nearly 780,000 Eco-Palms were sold this year, and Pennsylvania is the second largest state. Prices start at $6 for 18-20 plus $10 shipping, and progress to $138 for 540-600 plus $22 shipping.
Kattie Somerfeld, fair trade project coordinator at Lutheran World Relief, said that the only complaints she hears are from those who prefer palm strips.
"Most of the feedback is that they are beautiful, and that it’s nice to celebrate another dimension of justice when we celebrate Palm Sunday," she said.
Eco-Palm harvesters are paid by the quality, not the quantity, so they harvest fewer and cut carefully. Waste has been reduced from as high as 50 percent to little more than 5 percent.
Workers are paid at least five times what the middlemen paid them, and middlemen have been eliminated. Eco-Palm cooperatives have their own warehouses, and sell directly to the United States. Online sales and delivery is handled by a Minnesota florist, who sends a 5-cent rebate from each frond back to the harvesting communities.
Melanie Hardison, a program associate in the Presbyterian Hunger Program at Presbyterian Church (USA) headquarters in Louisville, Ky., has visited Eco-Palm cooperatives.
"The people were very proud to show us the improvements in their communities. They’ve been able to improve their schools and, in one community, they’ve made improvements to the church. They are able to do a lot of things around education and health because of the extra income they receive from Eco-Palms," she said.
Each community decides how to use its share of the rebate. One Guatemalan community created scholarships for girls, who were formerly denied schooling because their parents couldn’t afford to pay. Another built a community kitchen. In Mexico, a cooperative put the money back into the business, making major improvements to the warehouse.
The project is contributing to the protection of forests, which villagers no longer want to remove in order to plant food crops. They take fire prevention very seriously, Mr. Current said.
The Rainforest Alliance in Guatemala has certified the Eco-Palm cooperatives there for sustainable management, he said. The cooperatives in Mexico are similarly managed but have not yet been able to afford sustainability audits.