If there’s one thing that gift retailers don’t go for, it’s fast fashion and mass-produced goods. Gift shops and gift retailers pay special attention to making their stores and boutiques differentiate from the big boxes. So it stands to reason that globally handcrafted products adhering to fair trade principles have garnered a special niche in the gift retail landscape. Equally good news for retailers is that these goods are often reasonably priced, allowing shops to offer unique handcrafted inventory that customers can buy without breaking the bank.
Why fair trade?
“Fair trade handmade products bring an accredited provenance that the person who made the product was paid a fair price, works in safe conditions and is treated with dignity and respect,” said Renice Jones of Global Crafts, a member of the Fair Trade Federation. “Whether it’s made of unusual material, has a certain cultural significance or supports a specific marginalized ethnic group, every piece has a story.”
Doug Lapp, senior buyer and purchasing manager at Ten Thousand Villages, which wholesales fairly produced products from 30 countries around the world, said businesses like Ten Thousand Villages serve as bridges between two worlds and are effectively helping local artisans find a wider audience for their craft.
A touch of unique
Maura Kroh, president of fair trade wholesalers Acacia Creations and Creative Women, said the handcrafted aspect of globally produced goods often brings unique character to each item. “Creative Women’s textiles, for example, are consistent in quality and size. In each piece, however, you can see slight variations in the hand-spun cotton that make each uniquely beautiful,” Kroh said, “Likewise each paper bead in Acacia Creations’ jewelry is entirely one of a kind. This adds a very personal, human element to each piece.”
Jonit Bookheim of Mata Traders, which wholesales a variety of fair trade apparel, said that Mata’s apparel stands out because many elements of the products such as hand-woven fabrics, and crafts such as handmade block prints, embroidery by hand, and screen prints are all woven into the business model. Equally important, the demand for this unique look is keeping old crafts and traditions alive, which might have otherwise been drowned out by mass-produced goods. “Traditions like block print and hand-weaving have been vibrant in India for centuries and with the advent of textile production going to factories, that was under threat,” Bookheim said. “Now it is having a little resurgence as customers are appreciating the handcrafted aspect.”
“There are some amazing stories from Bangladesh, for example, where a woman a generation ago was essentially watching her mother starve and is now able to find employment and earn an income to send her daughter to school,” said Rebecca Stamp of Ten Thousand Villages. “These are the sort of life-changing things that can happen through a fair income.”
Linda Corrado of Dynasty Gallery said that her company works hard to have customers rethink the “made in China” brand. The business wholesales a variety of handcrafted glasswork from special glass-blowing districts in China and the focus is on specialty craft. She added that glass artisans around the world have their individual specialties — India for example, is known for cutwork glass, while Thailand for its tableware — so Dynasty showcases the best artisanal and globally handcrafted goods giving these creators a vehicle to sell their products.
Fair trade standards
Renice Jones advises retailers to check if wholesalers are members of the Fair Trade Federation since that’s a reliable check to ensure ethical sourcing. Businesses are evaluated for accreditation based on a set of nine different principles and a Fair Trade Federation seal of approval is essentially an assurance that the specific business meets all standards set by the federation, which includes living wages and safe working conditions.
Fair Trade USA, Fair International and World Fair Trade Organization are a few additional organizations under whose umbrella wholesalers can seek fair trade certifications.
Global is the new local
If your customers are into Made in America, fret not, say wholesalers of globally sourced goods. “I personally see ‘Made in America’ and ‘Fair Trade’ as complementary movements, not necessarily competitive,” said Kroh. “Fair trade places an emphasis on the rights and dignity of human beings. In my view the principles of fair trade should remain relevant regardless of geography. All people, whether in the Global North or South, deserve dignified working conditions and equitable trade relationships. The specifics of each case may vary around the world, but the core ideals of fairness and equality remain the same.”
“We’re all friends,” added Kelly Weinberger of WorldFinds. “I think that all our missions are to create a better world through the products that we’re sourcing.”
There are more practical concerns too. “A number of people who used to run with only Made in the USA stores are now seeking out ethically made products that are globally sourced so that they can compete,” said Nancy Dunitz of fair trade business Dunitz & Co.
Fair trade and globally sourced products have a special look that can really be highlighted or merged with store’s existing displays depending on how much you want to showcase the free trade aspect of the products’ story, sources say.
“Some of our museum stores really love to tell the story and highlight that,” Weinberger said. “A lot of our other boutiques love it because it all merchandises with the clothing that they sell. They can put a bright colorful necklace on a more basic, organic cotton dress or top. Every store calls it out a little differently.”
Globally sourced fair trade products are bringing back an emphasis on craftsmanship and really rejecting the fast fashion mentality, Bookheim said. “”It’s all about being deliberate about your purchases instead of going for things that are going to be thrown out in a few months and end up in a landfill.”
“Fair trade makes sure that the people who are actually producing the products are the ones benefiting from the trade,” Lapp said. “In that sense, global is the new local.”