You’re a passionate advocate for fair trade.
I sure am! If you’re not passionate about fair trade, then this movement is not for you. But the rewards are great. Knowing that you’re making a difference in the lives of people, especially women and girls, is very powerful.
So fair trade impacts economic development?
Definitely, if it’s done right. Our circumstances sometimes dictate the trajectory of our lives, for better or worse. My family ended up in the United States because of a war in their country. We were among the lucky ones to flee to safety because I had an American passport. Sadly, many others aren’t as lucky. In many countries jobs aren’t readily available or a strong enough retail market doesn’t exist. Fair trade allows me to connect with artisans in developing countries and to provide them with an outlet for their work.
How did you get involved in fair trade?
After a two-year stint volunteering at a fair trade store, I launched World-Shoppe, an online retail marketplace. At the time, there weren’t many e-commerce sites dedicated solely to fair trade so we were able to gain market share and develop our brand early on. In 2010, we shifted to primarily wholesale and began working directly with our artisan partners in South Africa.
Are there any advantages to being an American in the fair trade market?
You’d think many people would be eager to work with someone who wanted to provide them with paying work. You’d be wrong. Many non-Americans are wary of our intentions and think we’ll take advantage of them in some way.
Has that happened to you?
Yes. I found this to be true when I traveled to Pakistan. But, given our history in that region of the world, it’s understandable. My strategy was to take it slow, share my history of working with artisans in South Africa, and let things unfold more organically.
Ever struggle with different cultural practices?
Cultural differences are very real and should be respected. The “American” way is not the right way or the only way. Each country has its own foods, customs, and people and that’s a wonderful thing to be embraced.
Having said that, I still struggle with the way some women are treated overseas and even here in the U.S. Many women accept customs that hurt them in the name of honor or tradition or gender roles.
We see that happen often with girls’ education.
Yes. What really surprised me was how much the women I met in Pakistan believed that educating boys is more important than educating girls. There was a similar belief in South Africa. I started a scholarship fund there last year to fund the tuition and fees for a female student. When I insisted that the program fund girls’ education, there was definitely some resistance. Even the headmistress of the recipient school tried to steer me in a different direction.
So gender roles and culture played a part?
I think it was partly because the women believe that men are more likely to get higher paying jobs and support their families. So women think it’s better to stay home and take care of the children and the household. But study after study shows that educating girls reaps higher rewards because they can contribute to economic development in their communities.
What tips do you have for someone interested in a fair trade business?
First, learn why fair trade is so important and see if it appeals to you. And make sure your intentions are authentic. If your goal is to start a business, then volunteer or work for another fair trade company and see how business is done. You don’t need to be a retailer or wholesaler to make a difference in the world but it would be good to know what fair trade means and what qualifies as fair trade.
Any myths about fair trade that you’d like to dispel?
The term fair trade is still relatively new in the U.S. but the movement is gaining momentum and sales of fair trade products are skyrocketing. However, there is a misconception that fair trade products are ‘primitive’. Fortunately, as more people get involved, they are helping to change those perceptions. In many cases this means design assistance and working with the artisans to encourage them to create more fashion-forward designs using indigenous materials.
The other myth is that fair trade is a faith-based movement. It’s not. Rather, it’s a human rights and international trade movement in which we are striving to break the cycle of poverty by providing meaningful work to artisans in developing countries and paying them a fair wage for that work. It’s also about developing long-term relationships and being mindful of the earth’s resources.
Can you recommend other resources for people who want to learn more about fair trade?
The Fair Trade Federation is a great resource if you’re looking for wholesalers and importers as well as local retailers in the U.S. while the World Fair Trade Organization has a more global focus. The non-profit Fair World Project puts out a quarterly magazine that discusses various fair trade issues from certification to commodities production. For teachers and parents the Fair Trade Resource Network has terrific educational resources, including materials to promote World Fair Trade Day which is celebrated every year in May.