Where and Why to Buy Fair Trade Goods

by Camilla Cheung on 20 July 2011 4 comments

I love having unique home décor items that tell a story as well as brighten up my home. While you can get beautiful items at big box stores like Crate and Barrel, Bed Bath & Beyond, and other retailers, nothing beats the beauty and uniqueness of handmade items. Sometimes I pamper myself and splurge on a handmade item from Etsy or a product from a local artists fair, but another great way to get beautiful handmade home décor is to shop for fair trade goods. (See also: 15 Home Decorating Ideas for Under $5)

Although it may seem counterintuitive, shopping fair trade isn’t necessarily expensive. In fact, if you choose wisely, you can get a high-quality, authentic, handmade item for the same or a lower price than you can get a mass-produced piece from a big box store. And in addition to satisfying your own shopping desires, you have the added benefit of providing a fair wage to the artisan.

The fair trade movement has become an increasingly widespread way to provide a decent living and better working conditions to workers from relatively impoverished backgrounds. Fair trade organizations aim to create markets for fair trade goods in wealthier areas, such as North America, while training and providing better living conditions for artisans living in developing countries. Because fair trade organizations are not aiming to maximize profits, they are able to provide better wages for workers while keeping prices affordable for us, cutting out the big corporations that usually take a huge cut of the profits. Fair prices for the goods must be agreed upon by all parties and reflect the time and effort that has been put into each piece.

The fair trade movement has garnered some controversy, and while I don't have room to address those concerns in this article, I will say that I don't believe fair trade is perfect, or that it is the answer to the world's poverty problems. As with anything involving money, there is sure to be some corruption and dishonesty somewhere in the process of delivering goods to market. However, if I am faced with the choice of buying something from a big box store that mass manufactures goods with known unfair policies, or buying goods from a fair trader who hopefully is providing some benefit to the producer, I feel confident that buying fair trade is the better way to spend my limited cash. Having worked with a company that started a fair trade knitting co-op in Asia, I can say first-hand that the women in the knitting co-op were happy with their jobs and appreciated the opportunity to learn and use new skills. If you're uncertain about an item you wish you purchase, you may want to do further research into the company. Look for companies that are members of the Fair Trade Federation, World Fair Trade Organization, or other reputable groups to help ensure that the products you buy are truly fair trade.

Some of my favorite fair trade goods to shop for are colorful blankets, throws, and scarves; affordable and unique jewelry; beautiful decorative sculptures; and bowls and colorful ceramics. It is a great idea to buy fair trade coffee, chocolate, and handicrafts, as these items, when obtained commercially, are often produced with unfair practices. The ubiquity of e-commerce has made fair trade goods available like never before. Below are a few excellent websites where you can browse and purchase beautiful fair trade items.

Ten Thousand Villages

This non-profit organization is a branch of the Mennonite Central Committee. Ten Thousand Villages has retail stores around the nation as well as an extensive number of goodies available in their online store. I have purchased gifts from them several times and they always ship quickly and package their goods well. Many of their items are very affordable, especially considering how unique they are!

Connected

This pretty website sources its items primarily from companies that are members of the Fair Trade Federation and World Fair Trade Organization, allowing you to buy products with peace of mind. From crocheted baby toys to pretty blankets, you’ll find a wealth of fairly-priced merchandise on Connected.

WorldofGood.com

WorldofGood.com is eBay’s online multi-seller marketplace dedicated to selling socially and environmentally responsible goods. Everything you buy on this website has been verified by a third-party organization, which vouches for the company's treatment of its workers, environmental practices, and more. A set of easy-to-understand icons designates each item as “people positive,” “eco positive,” “animal friendly,” or “supports a cause,” helping you know how your money will be used. Although WorldofGood was acquired by eBay in 2010 amid talk that it was “selling out,” it remains a non-profit organization.

Global Exchange

Global Exchange has a few of the most popular fair-trade retail stores in San Francisco and Berkeley, but they are also more than just a retailer for fair trade goods. Global Exchange is also an international human rights organization that strives to deliver environmental, political, and social justice to people around the world through grassroots initiatives. Items in the Global Exchange online store are certified by the Fair Trade Federation, TransFair, and other third-party certification groups.

These are just a few places to start looking for fair trade goods. Do you have any other tips about buying fair trade goods to share?

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Rachael

Novica.com, which is in association with National Geographic, is a brilliant source of Fair Trade items. I just received two AMAZING, stylish, high quality handbags from Novica. These bags rival or exceed the best leather Italian bags I've seen in Italy, and the price of these handbags as well as other items on Novica are quite reasonable, especially considering you are personally helping the artisans to earn a fair wage. I can't recommend Novica enough and would second the Ten Thousand Villages recommendation in the article. I live in NW New Jersey and every few months make the drive to the lovely flagship store in Ephrata PA. This store also houses a nice cafe. I signed up for both Novica and 10000 Villages emails which are a great way to stay informed of offerings, sales, etc.

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Pamela

One of my frustrations with Fair Trade shops is their boutiquey nature. It can be hard to find practical items for around the house.

I was thrilled to find Saffron Marigold, a company that sells fairly-traded bedspreads, curtains, and shower curtains made in India. I hope we see more companies where we can buy more everyday items instead of just geegaws for around the house.

Camilla Cheung's picture

Thanks to both of you for the suggestions. I agree, it would be nice to find more practical items sold in fair-trade stores.

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Staci

Holiday decor, ornaments and gifts are also great to buy Fair Trade. During the holidays you can spread cheer and goodwill not only to your own family, but to artisans around the world. I love giving handmade, Fair Trade gifts to friends because I know the gift wasn't made in some sweatshop by a little kid.