Fair trade brands impact the artisan communities by helping to provide economic security, and they impact the environment by being thoughtful stewards of the planet, using eco-friendly materials. Fair trade also helps consumers be socially conscious in their purchasing decisions.
Fair trade can trace its roots to the 1940s with the founding of Ten Thousand Villages, though the term ‘fair trade’ was not coined until the 1970s. Even then, the label referred primarily to such commodities as chocolate and coffee. Later, handcrafted products, such as jewelry, clothing, soaps and home décor were introduced under the fair trade umbrella.
THE FAIR TRADE FEDERATION
The Fair Trade Federation, established in 1994, is a North American trade association with more than 300 members, comprising both wholesalers and retailers, all of whom commit to sourcing and selling ethically-made handcrafted products. The organization verifies that members meet nine rigorous principles of fair trade. And there are many more nonmember retailers who choose to stock fair trade items, knowing the difference that these goods can make in the world.
“We build equitable and sustainable trading partnerships borne out of a desire to alleviate poverty. The global fair trade movement is an approach to trade that values the health of the planet and the labor, dignity and equality of all people,” explained the FTF’s executive director, Chris Solt.
WORLDFINDS & dZI
It was during a 14-month, around-the-world backpacking trip with her husband in 1999 that Kelly Weinberger visited a women’s cooperative in Nepal. That encounter changed the trajectory of her life. She spent the remainder of the trip learning about the concept of fair trade and economic disparity, while meeting and learning from artisans.
“I wanted to see where I could fill a niche in the market. I started to test products at trunk shows and at gift shops. It has grown organically from there. I became part of the Fair Trade Federation. That was really helpful, getting started by being able to talk to people who went through the start-up pains,” said Weinberger, who lives in Chicago.
Today, WorldFinds distributes ethically-sourced fabric jewelry and accessories made by 700-800 women artisans in India, and their products can be found in more than 900 North American shops. She said that she sells to a huge range of stores, from museum shops to boutiques, and that the customer demographic range in age from 20s-60s.
Mac McCoy is the CEO and founder of dZi, a wholesaler that works with Tibetan, Indian, and Nepali artisans to create handmade, eco-conscious gifts. The name, dZi, is a Tibetan word that refers to a highly treasured Tibetan “eye bead” that is considered to be a powerful charm.
McCoy said that dZi maintains five lines, with the original line called the Tibet Collection. Other lines include Fair Trade Holiday, which includes handfelted ornaments, stockings and other holiday décor; Wild Woolies (animal-themed handfelted characters); Lunar Revolution Jewelry; and Fair Trade Home and Garden. The company works with approximately 15 groups representing 1000 plus artisans, primarily in handfelted wool but also in jewelry and other products.
“Our primary goal is to provide steady orders to these businesses. To be able to help them provide steady jobs to their employees who then in turn can improve their own home lives. Any community does better when there is more work and jobs available to the people in that community,” said McCoy. He added that some of the larger artisan groups have even launched schools in their communities.
Unlike mass produced factory items, every fair trade product has a story, and perhaps that is the primary pull for consumers. Retailers often will place a story about the item and the artisan on the hangtag, or sometimes, customers will ask the shop owner for more information. Take WorldFinds, for example. Customers may learn that the kantha statement necklace is sustainably made with repurposed textiles and wood scraps. They may learn that the jewelry is handmade from repurposed saris and scraps from kantha. They may also learn that the woman who made this item is helping her family and sending her daughter to school and now has access to healthcare. “We have POS displays that helps tell the story, helps make that connection more tangible. You know this person exists, that you’re buying from a human and helping out the community,” said Weinberger.
Paul Culler, owner of the retail store Fair Trade Winds, with four locations across the U.S., said that he provides background information about the artisans, such as a sign indicating that a particular artist was made by a woman who escaped trafficking, for example. The more customers learn, the more they’re likely to return. “It’s really powerful that those products mean something and are not just made on an automated machine.”
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
The opposite of competition is cooperation, and unlike many other facets of business, wholesalers and retailers devoted to fair trade practices actually help each other out.
Culler tells the story of how he sent a potential customer five miles down the road to another fair trade gift shop, as that shop had an item in stock that he did not. He said that when he attends the annual Fair Trade meetings with two to three hundred retailers, “We don’t shy away from telling people how our businesses are going or what works best for us. We give people ideas and really, anything can be on the table. There are no trade secrets—that doesn’t happen in any business but fair trade,” said Culler, who carries scarves, jewelry, clothing, household goods and much more.
Solt echoed Culler. “Collaboration is a huge feeling in the fair trade community. It is very much a group of friends and associates that has been given a lot of facilitation through the creation of the Fair Trade Federation. At their annual conference, like-minded individuals and businesses get together and share stories, share tips, share knowledge, and give support to each other in what is generally a tough business,” he said.
Of course, there is some competition, as is the inherent nature of business, but there generally is a feeling mutual respect. “We try to tread softly or avoid direct competition wherever possible; that is part of the ethic,” said Solt.
Both Weinberger and McCoy agree that the fair trade world is a strongly collaborative one. “Most of us do different things, but we have so many commonalities that we bond immeasurably, which is one of the reasons we love being in the fair trade world,” said Weinberger.
INCREASED INTEREST IN FAIR TRADE
Interest in fair trade and ethically sourced products is growing, both from the retailer and the consumer perspective, as awareness is gradually dawning about the impact of fair trade. For example, many customers who purposefully shop fair trade appreciate the supply chain transparency.
“I think it’s that people are waking up to look at more what is going on globally. People are hearing about the environment and the ramifications of fast fashion. They are waking up to global systems that are harming people and planets and want to do something to help counter that. They’re thinking, ‘I can make a difference in the world with my purchasing choices,’” said Weinberger.
McCoy agreed, adding, “More and more, people are realizing the interconnectedness of their consumer decisions, that they’re not just buying a gift but they are part of a supply chain that helps provide meaningful jobs to people that help support their families and communities,” he said.
“There’s so much good that happens because of one simple bracelet—it’s doing so much good, and that is such a great thing for independent retailers to have. The retail landscape is really challenging, and this is a way to differentiate themselves from the big box stores,” added Weinberger.
Solt said that the industry is evolving, with fair trade brands competing with top fashion brands, something he calls “…new and exciting.”
For the retailer, McCoy said, selling fair trade items lay the foundation for building strong customer relationships, which ultimately translate into sales. “There are more people seeking deeper fulfillment in their work, and fair trade is one way to do it,” he said.
It’s not always easy, though. Culler said that, as a small retailer, his primary struggle is budgeting for marketing to get the word out about his fair trade inventory. He believes that the majority of consumers connect more with the buzzwords ‘ethically made’ and ‘environmentally sustainable’ more so than the ‘fair trade’ aspect and all of its underlying principles. “That whole concept doesn’t go that far, though we are making progress,” he said.
Still, the fair trade business is a gratifying one. Culler said he enjoys “…the satisfaction of being able to talk to customers who come in to the store and tell us how much they appreciate that we’re doing this.”
Solt added that to be effective as a retailer, you have to make an emotional connection with your consumer by having a values approach to retailing, which gives you a competitive edge. “It is not enough just to be an efficient and effective retailer, which you have to be in today’s marketplace, but it’s the right thing to do.”