Fair Trade’s Stirring Reception
Fair trade principles have become increasingly relevant in a rapidly interconnected world. Find out what’s new in this important product segment.
Thanks to social media, many of us have instant access to news around the world including the clothing factory tragedy in Bangladesh. How does this news translate at the retail level? Consumers are scrutinizing their purchases, choosing to become more socially and economically responsible in how they shop, according to Paul Culler, owner of Fair Trade Winds, a family-run, fully committed fair trade retail store with six locations across the United States.
“People want value and meaning in their lives and qualified fair trade products help to address and affirm that need,” says Mac McCoy, CEO of dZi Inc., a fair trade wholesale business that works with Himalayan artisans. “Now that consumers are more aware of the exploitive practices found in so many factories around the world, many rightly wonder and worry about how their purchases might even negatively impact the lives of the people who did the hard production work but were not fairly compensated.”
News like the tragedy in the Bangladesh factory is helping to fuel the growth of fair trade products across the United States. Today, the Fair Trade Federation boasts 250 fully fair trade organizations in North America, all of which employ members of their own community while also supporting craftspeople and farmers around the world, says Renee Bowers, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation.
Is the renewed interest in Made in the U.S.A. in conflict with buying goods, even if they are produced using fair trade principles, from developing countries? How does buying fair trade fit in with the buy local model that many Main Street retailers are embracing?
“Each of us lives and works in a local community that is intimately connected to the world around us; the beauty of fair trade is that it embraces both a local and a global mindset,” says Bowers.
Retailers and wholesalers agree that incorporating fair trade products into your “shop local” merchandising mix is complementary and beneficial to retailers and consumers.
Some fair trade wholesalers are adopting the term glocalization to better describe how offering fair trade products supports the local movement. “While our products empower our artisan partners in India financially and personally, many of the 1,500 retailers that sell our products are local, independent businesses,” adds Barbara-Anne Mansfield, marketing manager for Handmade Expressions, a fair trade wholesale business that works with artisans in India. “So we see this ‘glocal’ model as a win-win for everybody, supporting artisans and local businesses through the power of fair trade.”
Just as important as the livelihood of workers to many consumers is the need to be environmentally responsible and oftentimes fair trade products carry through that message.
“Both [fair trade and made locally] product lines rely on the products being something a consumer wants first and when they discover it is handcrafted by an artisan who was paid a fair price for the piece, the product is just that much more desirable, regardless of whether it is locally made/grown or fair trade,” notes Renice Jones, co-founder of Global Crafts, a wholesaler of fair trade crafts from 30 producer partners in 15 countries as well as Gifts With Humanity, an online and bricks-and-mortar fair trade retailer in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
Veronica Sinclaire, founder of Social Gem, a fair trade wholesale business that works with women artisans in Indonesia, dismisses the idea that a conflict exists between the two movements. “A conscious consumer is smart and able to support both movements simply by being aware, paying attention and deciding what’s important,” she says. “There is not a lot of conflict between fair trade and buy local. A lot of products made under fair trade are simply not being made locally, and vice versa. [The] ‘Buy Local’ message is in response to the deluge of cheap, poor quality goods from sweatshops and factories in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh. And so is [the] ‘Buy Fair Trade’ message. Both messages say ‘Don’t buy underpriced, poor quality goods, that were manufactured with no regard for human rights.’”
Being respectful of the earth’s resources is also important to many consumers and fair trade is very much aligned with the green movement.
“Fair traders seek to protect the people who make products as well as the communities they live in,” notes Bowers. “Whenever possible, fair traders use environmentally responsible techniques throughout the supply chain. It is also important to remember that small-scale, handmade production eliminates many of the environmental dangers that are inherent in large factories or production facilities.”
StorySelling vs. storyTelling
“Visual merchandising in the store is an effective way to capture the customer’s interest in knowing more about where their products come from,” suggests McCoy. “Tasteful but non-intrusive story cards can help a consumer decide that the product has more meaning than they might realize at face value.”
In Martha Ehlman’s store, Tenfold Fair Trade Collection, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, customers enjoy learning about artisans’ stories from the staff as well as postings throughout the store. Ehlman also provides the stories printed out with purchases so the recipient of the item can learn more about the product and the artisan. “Making this vital connection for consumers between the product they purchase and the people crafting it is extremely important to us and to the sale of these wonderful products,” says Ehlman.
So, what’s selling? Having a wide range of fair trade products helps and although most wholesalers and retailers agree that jewelry is their number one category seller, it’s important to offer variety. Christopher Keefe, owner of Minga Fair Trade Imports, a wholesale distributor of fair trade goods from small artisan groups and families in economically challenged regions, suggests buying a variety of colors of one items, such as scarves, keeping displays well-stocked and not falling into the trap of buying only what you like.
Not surprisingly, Jones is noticing eco-friendly products with a nod toward design doing well in the fair trade marketplace. “Successful recycled, upcycled fair trade products address design trends, integrate local flavor and, if possible, local-only materials with recycled materials, and require artisan handmade skills that are not easily reproduced in a factory,” she adds.
For some customers, the beauty of handmade products is what attracts them to fair trade merchandise. Other customers feel a need to be connected to the global world is what draws them to fair trade products. “People are tired of feeling helpless and realize that even small choices when combined can make a big difference,” says Keefe. Fair trade allows consumers to feel good about the purchases they are making that support not only the local economy and environment but has a ripple effect in the global community of which we’re all a part.