Friday, December 29, 2006

Fair trade retailers say demand for their products is growing

from The Wisconsin State Journal


The term "fair trade" is finally becoming familiar beyond coffee shops on the Isthmus.

The range of fair trade products is rapidly broadening beyond coffee, cocoa and bananas. Furnishings, clothing, spa products, gourmet foods, toys, ornaments, musical instruments, kitchen equipment and jewelry are among the items being sold under the umbrella of fair trade associations.

Perhaps the most glamorous fair trade operation on Earth is Bono's clothing company Edun (Nude spelled backward). And at this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, many high-end design firms displayed a wide range of furnishings made by Third World artisans.

But one of the world's most successful and oldest fair trade groups, A Greater Gift, is based in Madison. And a pioneering apparel, Fair Indigo, opened recently at Hilldale Shopping Center.

"This is not charity," said Renee Gasch of A Greater Gift, which has annual revenues of more than $9 million. "It's a way of doing business fairly."

And the Internet is changing everything for the fair trade movement.
Its major tenet is paying "living wages" to producers. Living wages are determined by a community's minimum wage and the cost of living. The city of Madison, for instance, has determined that the living wage here is $10.23 an hour. A calculator that can determine the living wage anywhere in the world is being developed by the fair trade organization called A World of Good. "But we look to the artisans to determine what a living wage is for them," said Gasch.

In addition to living wages, A Greater Gift and other fair trade groups set standards in other areas: women's rights, the absence of child exploitation or forced labor, safe and healthy work environments and eco- friendly production. Fair trade production criteria set by A Greater Gift, for example, prohibits the use of exotic, endangered or slow growing species like the teak tree. Instead, sustainable materials like palm grass or fast-growing bamboo are used.

For some fair trade groups, including A Greater Gift, sales growth hit double digits in each of the last three years, in large part because of online product sales. A Greater Gift also prints a million catalogs and sells at 250 other locations in the U.S. Because the middleman is eliminated in fair trade operations, prices are competitive even though higher wages are paid to producers.

Fair trade stores try to make a connection between shoppers and producers who are usually separated by an ocean. Cards tell the stories of who, where and how many of the things were made. Cold-pressed olive oil, for example, was made by a group of Jewish and Arab women on Israel's West Bank who are working together to improve the lives of Arab olive growers in Galilee. Other items came from a workshop for handicapped artisans in Kenya; their profits have provided them with housing, medical care and a cultural center.
Today's fair trade movement began in the ruins of Europe after World War II. Madison's A Greater Gift has roots in a pacifist church that wanted to help European refugees. Since then it moved on from war zones, separated from the church and became a non-profit. Like other fair trade groups, such as Ten Thousand Villages, it gives artisans grants to buy equipment and supplies and computers, and it holds workshops on exporting and other business practices and helps with design. The Internet, in addition to connecting products to buyers, has made it easier for artisans and those who work with them exchange information.

"We tell (artisans) about trends - natural colors are popular now, and certain shapes are," said Gasch, a marketer for the group. "But we are also very cognizant of the cultural meaning of the artisans' works. We don't want to compromise the integrity of their work just for the sake of fresh new design."

Building long-term relationships with artisans is one of the core goals of the group.

"The only way to dig out of poverty is for the artisans to get a fair price year after year," Gasch said. The fair trade business model turns the standard business model on its head. A typical business will negotiate with producers to lower their prices in exchange for buying large quantities. Rival producers are encouraged to underbid each other.

The path for Madison's pioneering fair trade apparel business, Fair Indigo at Hilldale, may be more daunting because they deal with textile factories instead of small artisan collectives.

"There's no certification process yet for fair-trade apparel, and it's very complicated," said store manager Julie Krbec. "We're working with UW- Madison and Stanford to try to speed up the development of certification standards, but I don't expect anything to be settled for a couple of years. But it's going well for us so far. Madison was the perfect place to try something like this, because people here already understand the concept of fair trade."
Mary Zwicky, of Madison, has been buying all her Christmas gifts at Global Express since attending a holiday fair held by the group at a West Side church about five years ago.

"I found one-of-a-kind things at good prices, and my family and friends seemed to like them more than things from ordinary department stores," she said. "Then I started hearing all the stories about overseas sweatshops and Wal-Mart, and I started feeling guilty about buying anything there, even if the prices are low. There are some stores I won't even enter any more."

For Paul Steiner of Madison, buying fair trade coffee at several area coffee shops over the past several years piqued his interest in other fair trade merchandise. He bought a black jersey skirt for his wife's birthday at Fair Indigo, and wooden toys for his infant son at Global Express.

"I'd say the United States has a big image problem right now," he said. "I know thinking about what kind of coffee I buy doesn't change much, but it's at least a little thing I can do."

Gasch says interest the fair trade movement in the U.S. is still in its infancy.

"It's a drop in the bucket," she said. "At this point fair trade isn't affecting the economy of any country. But it is changing the lives of individual artisans. We take surveys every year, asking if we're effective, what we could differently or better. We believe that eventually this movement will build to the point where it will change the economy of a country."

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