Why Fair Trade Matters

Why Fair Trade Matters
April 7, 2022 Rachel Biel
Hand-Carved Teardrop Earrings in Apricot Wood from Sodiq Zaripov of Tajikistan - HoonArts Fair Trade

When we think of handmade items, whether they were made recently or a long time ago, we can feel a connection with a person or a community who worked on those pieces, stitching, carving, turning on a wheel…  We understand that each piece is unique, comes with a story and that is something to be treasured.

The idea of “handmade” goes beyond a product. It is a lifestyle that includes a relationship with the materials, with heritage, and with self subsistence. If we look back in history, societies that had vibrant craft making traditions often depended on the cycles of nature, tied to the the land in agriculture and animal husbandry. Cottage industries produced clothing, housewares and products for sale in the downtimes, in the winter or when chores were finished. Merchants built industry by connecting with the makers and selling their goods. The Industrial Revolution caused a collapse in many of these ancient trading systems, but craft production continues to this day in artist studios, collectives, villages, and through social enterprise initiatives.

Technology has opened up doors for communities around the world to take their products to market through the internet. There are hurdles they have had to learn: website development, photography, overcoming language and currency barriers, shipping issues and so on. In the 1960’s, Peace Corps volunteers understood that the crafts they saw in the areas they were assigned to had great potential for bringing economic development to those communities and they started initiatives that brought products to the American market. Their knowledge of what Americans would buy influenced product designs. One example is how Otavalo Indians in Ecuador started making sweaters with Scandinavian designs, changing the city into a massive production center over time. (See this book excerpt.)  Otavalo Indians travel all over the world selling their sweaters at festivals and markets. The sweaters have a distinct look that is no longer associated with their Nordic roots.

There are craft traditions all over the world that continue to thrive, while others may disappear due to their complexity and lack of support. Great knowledge of techniques dies off with each elder ages and is buried. Fortunately, we have seen young designers bring about a revival of interest and support for the complexities found in villages and and in the old ways. They can connect two worlds, one of knowledge and skill and the other of financing and design.

So, there are many kinds of collaborations that happen today that allow handmade products to find their place in the larger market. Fair Trade is an essential one.

Fair Trade Definition

Fair Trade’s roots lie in working with people who have been disenfranchised from normal marketing channels. Coffee growers were one of the first to define the concept as growers depended on middle men to get their beans to market. They organized and were able to find partners who helped them achieve independence from structures that kept them from sharing in the profits. This concept spread to nuts and food products and was readily adopted by groups working with crafts. Some of the first adopters were missionary or church groups who used volunteers to bring products physically to the United States or European countries sending back the proceeds to the artisan groups they were representing.

 

Edna Ruth Byler, Founder of what grew into Ten Thousand Villages

Edna Ruth Byler, Founder of what grew into Ten Thousand Villages

“I’m just a woman trying to help other women.” – Edna Ruth Byler

Ten Thousand Villages grew out of that tradition and, as far as I know, is the oldest and largest Fair Trade group around. Edna Ruth Byler started out by buying textiles from women and re-selling them in the United States. The Mennonite Central Committee backed her and their efforts have grown into a huge organization supporting craft production all over the world. Read the story here.

The basic concept of Fair Trade is that products represent decent wages, good working conditions and benefits for the larger community. There are many fair trade organizations these days, but the two most influential in my circles are the World Fair Trade Organization and the Fair Trade Federation.  Both subscribe to Ten Principles of Fair Trade:

Fair Trade Principles

Fair Trade Principles

Both sites define each principle in detail. An important part of these aspirations has to do with time, investing in a community for a long, long time…  I’m friends with Pushpika Freitas who launched MarketPlace: Handwork of India a couple of decades ago. We were talking about how you can evaluate whether a Fair Trade group has been successful. She said that it can be measured by how the community benefited over time: having access to clean water, good housing, education for the children, medical care and so on. But, self esteem and having fun are also core principles for MarketPlace and they consciously build these ideas into their programs. See their stories here.

Pushpika Freitas quote on MarketPlace Handwork of India

 

MayaMam Weavers, one of our members, celebrated greatly when their members each received a stove and water filters, funded by a grant from the Pulsera Project. See the story here. These are the kinds benefits that can come from creating the relationships and networks that can have a huge impact on the daily lives of people.

MayaMam Weavers received stoves and water filters from a grant by the Pulsera Project.

MayaMam Weavers received stoves and water filters from a grant by the Pulsera Project.

Why Does Fair Trade Matter?

Because it is about justice. It gives people who have been left out of the modern tools of commerce access to the market. It gives them a voice, ownership over their time, and allows them to develop to their full potential.

One of the problems I saw with Fair Traders in the 1980’s was what I call the “Missionary Mentality”. I grew up as a missionary kid in Brazil during an amazing time of creativity. People played music and sang, our women’s group met all year to embroider, knit and make things for an annual sale, people cooked, canned and knew how to fix things. It was wonderful! But, I also understood that many Americans tried to force their world views on other people, all in the name of religion. This was clearly visible to me in the types of crafts that were encouraged by many of the big fair trade organizations of the time and I still see some of that today. There was a lack of interest in design, in originality and artisans were cranking out the same thing over and over and over. How many wooden giraffes from Kenya does the world really need?

Donna Biel 1960 Icelandic sweater, Minneota, Minnesota

Donna Biel 1960 Icelandic sweater, Minneota, Minnesota

Part of the problem lies in the logistics of selling things in bulk, of having a catalog and needing to replicate products, but most of the problem really came from good hearted people having no clue about techniques, no real understanding of art, no need for originality. Quantity over quality. I have always felt that we need to educate and encourage buyers to pay more for things that really are worth making. Of course, not everyone can afford to pay these prices, but if we consume less, maybe we can buy better quality. My mother, of Icelandic descent, and her siblings all got a hand knit sweater for their high school graduation present. It was understood that this sweater was to last a lifetime.

Things have changed and I do see a lot of great design happening with Fair Traders. I’m sure it is a relief for the artisans to have new products and ideas to work on, too. As an aside, choosing what words we use to describe “makers” has always been a challenge. There are definitely people who enjoy repetition and who like the process of making, whatever it is. And, there are others, like me, who love making the first earring and then can barely bear to make the second because it’s already been done. I differentiate between “artisans and makers” with “artists”. Artists have to have original ideas in my book.

Fair Trade Impact

Sadly, Fair Trade organizations have failed to attract a huge following. The idea of fair trade shows up in many indie unaffiliated efforts. They commit to it on their own, but don’t join any of the larger organizations. I think that part of that is that they have to disclose too much information for their own comfort or they just want to do things their own way. There is definitely a place for organized efforts as members receive support and visibility by being a part of a group, but the most important thing that has happened is that those ten principles have become a map for people who want to have a work ethic with the people they represent.

One of the big complaints that I have about Etsy is that they have never understood Fair Traders no the importance they have in representing communities that may not have computer access or know how, who don’t speak English, and who just can’t represent themselves well online. I have many Fair Trader friends who have been banned from selling on Etsy because they are seen as “re-sellers” or “middle men”, and yet Etsy allows factory made products that are copies of traditional crafts and have no social value. Obviously, there is still a lot of education that needs to happen.

Fair Traders on Artizan Made

We want fair trade to have a core presence in our MarketPlace and on our site. You can find our Fair Trade members by going to our Member Page and clicking on the Fair Trade link at the top of the page.

Click on their names or images to go to their profiles:

Amazon Ecology

Yoli with basket, Amazon Ecology

Yoli with basket, Amazon Ecology

Amazon Ecology works with indigenous people and campesinos on the Peruvian side of the border. They use materials that are found easily in the forest, making baskets, belts, bags, birds and more.

 

HoonArts

Eastern Star Hand Embroidered Pillow Cover from Munir of Tajikistan - HoonArts Fair Trade

Eastern Star Hand Embroidered Pillow Cover from Munir of Tajikistan

HoonArts represents several artisan groups in Tajikistan and the region who embroider, weave, dye, carve, felt and sew. Many of them are inspired by traditional designs but look for new ways to interpret them.

 

It’s Cactus

Garden Hummingbirds by Peterson Remy, Eco-Friendly Outdoor Metal Art- Haitian Fair Trade

Garden Hummingbirds by Peterson Remy, Eco-Friendly Outdoor Metal Art- Haitian Fair Trade

It’s Cactus has been working with Haitian artists for almost two decades. They have a huge selection of metal art, all upcycled from steel drums.

 

Kahiniwalla

Pebble Crocheter- Kahiniwalla Fair Trade

Pebble Crocheter- Kahiniwalla Fair Trade

Kahiniwalla represents “Pebble”, a fair trade initiative in Bangladesh that crochets toys for children.

Interested in joining Artizan Made? Visit our Join Page.

 

From our Marketplace

This grouping is a random selection pulled from our Marketplace. The shop button inside the product listing will take you to our member’s website.  You can also visit our Fair Trade category to see all of our listings.

 

 

Comments (2)

  1. Rikki Quintana 3 months ago

    This is a terrific summary of the history, challenges and internal contradictions of Fair Trade. Thank you, ArtizanMade, for highlighting this often misunderstood piece of commerce in the modern world. Fundamentally, those who work in Fair Trade are part of an effort to transform our global economic system into a system that values people and the planet at least as much, if not more, than profits. That’s a tall order, especially when working with small groups in remote areas who can’t take advantage of economies of scale in a world dominated by Amazon & WalMart and their competitors. It’s certainly not easy, but it’s a worthwhile and inspiring vision of what’s possible, if we can work together for the greater good of all.

    • Author
      Rachel Biel 3 months ago

      I’m glad you liked it, Rikki! I had so many things I wanted to touch on and it was hard to narrow things down…. 🙂 One thing I know is that when I used to go to the FTF conferences, I always enjoyed the other people so much! Fair traders are an adventurous group who love to travel, know how to rough it, and enjoy a good laugh.

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