On the street
“Made in India.” “Produced in Pakistan.”
Americans’ closets and homes are filled with objects bearing similar labels, while news programs proliferate with stories like the massive fire at a Bangladeshi textile factory and suicides at a Chinese electronics factory.
Isn’t there any other way to produce the goods Americans want?
A couple of local businesses see two words as at least part of the solution: fair trade.
“Fair trade” is not a brand name; rather, it is an adjective that expresses fair business practices between buyer and seller, and speaks to sustainability of the Earth.
Ten Thousand Villages opened this fall at 835 Massachusetts St., and Kretyen Fair Trade Gifts and Coffee, 2116 W. 25th St., has been in Lawrence since 2010. Both stores sell exclusively fair trade handmade gifts, jewelry and home décor, all of which provide a fair wage to individual and family artisans in developing countries.
Paul Stagner, manager of Ten Thousand Villages, says that purchases made at the Lawrence location and any of 390 other retail outlets selling its products affect anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 people around the globe. The Ten Thousand Villages stores, which first began in 1946, are staffed almost entirely by volunteers — the Lawrence store only has one full-time employee (Stagner) and one half-time employee — and are nonprofit entities, so that more of the proceeds from sales can benefit the producers themselves.
Many of the artisans in the Ten Thousand Villages network include organizations of women’s groups and people with disabilities or HIV or AIDS — groups of people who might not otherwise be able to sustain themselves in their home countries because of oppression and/or prejudice.
“For many of those groups, working with Ten Thousand Villages has meant the difference between absolute destitution and having a life with food to eat, clothing and shelter,” he said. “Generations of families have had their economic status elevated due to their association with Ten Thousand Villages.”
Karen Brinker, who is retired from Hallmark after 33 years, volunteers in the Overland Park store and helped open and set up the Lawrence store. She serves on the board of directors for the Overland Park Ten Thousand Villages store, which decided to open the Lawrence location. She first learned about Ten Thousand Villages and fair trade from a woman in her knitting group.
“Once you go to the store and look at the products, you can understand that each time you buy a product, you’re helping someone else. It’s like your gift counts twice,” Brinker said. “Spending your money there, as opposed to someplace else, makes it count for more.”
Debra Rukes believes so strongly in the power of fair trade products to help others in the world that she left a 15-year career in social services to open Kretyen.
“It is my belief that fair trade benefits all, particularly the world’s most disadvantaged,” she said. “I am committed to making a positive change in the world by offering artisans and farmers a sustainable living wage for their goods and educating my customers about the impact of their purchase choices.”
Ten Thousand Villages has its own network and process for ensuring that its products are fair trade. Rukes purchases Kretyen’s inventory from members of the Fair Trade Federation, whose long-term vision is to “seek to alleviate poverty by continually and significantly expanding the practice of trade that values the labor and dignity of all people.”
Handicrafts are not the only products that qualify as fair trade. Coffee, chocolate, cocoa and tea are most prevalent in developing countries, such as Colombia and India, and those farms must undergo an international fair trade certification process.
Lawrence grocery stores including The Merc and Natural Grocers offer large selections of certified fair trade coffees, teas and chocolates, and Kretyen sells some as well.
Stagner estimates that about three-quarters of the Lawrence Ten Thousand Villages store’s customers are familiar with the concept of fair trade and about two-thirds of them are aware of Ten Thousand Villages specifically.
“Our customers want the unusual. They don’t want the same things you find in every store,” he said.
Brinker said the Overland Park board of Ten Thousand Villages chose Lawrence for the new store partly because of the community’s knowledge of fair trade, but also because of the opportunity to spread the word about the importance of fair trade.
“A lot of people understand what’s going on in a broader sense of the world in Lawrence,” she said. “One of the reasons we picked Lawrence was the number of visitors: parents of college students, and people coming for basketball and football games.”
Both the Kretyen website and Ten Thousand Villages website offer videos and stories about some of the individual artisans who create the stores’ inventory.
One of Brinker’s favorite ways to illustrate the importance of fair trade is to tell the story of Pakistani rug makers: The large rugs are expensive and very beautiful because they are hand-knotted in a slow process, often by families. If a family sells one rug through fair trade, they can live for a year or two from the proceeds. If the dad’s hands get tired from knotting, he can stop and rest, then go back to work. If he were working in a much lower-wage factory in Pakistan and his hands got tired, and he stopped and rested, even for a second, he could get fired.
And his suffering and subsequent firing would not be reflected in the rug’s label, nor would it make the evening news.