Fair Trade: Products with a purpose are catching on

When was the last time you went shopping for a mission? A growing number of area gift, art, beverage, and home accessory retailers have invested in the idea that if you haven't done it yet, you will soon. Stores such as Green Island, Unity, Good Harbor Coffee, and Que Bonita all carry imported items that are certified with the label, "Fair Trade."

"It's easy to forget about the inhumanity that goes into so many of the products we use in our daily lives, but as awareness grows, hopefully justice will prevail, and the way business is done will be changed," said Nicole Warner, owner of Unity-Fair Trade Marketplace.

Unity opened on Earth Day (April 22) at 113 E. State Street in the alley behind Union Street Station. The store carries hand-crafted drums and other musical instruments, tea sets, table and bed linens, jewelry, purses and bags, baskets, children's toys and other products, many imported from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, certified as Fair Trade. That means that the artist or farmer producing the goods received a living wage, did not use forced or child labor, and used only sustainable production techniques.

Sound like an impractical and schmaltzy business model? Before you cast aside the idea that profit and philanthropy can exist side by side, consider the sales data. According to the Fair Trade Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that monitors the sales of Fair Trade goods in the U.S., the market is growing significantly. In 2002, the FTF reported $151.71 million in Fair Trade goods; in 2003 $291.75 million; in 2004, the latest year for which figures were available, $376.42 million.

"More consumers are voicing concern about companies that don't pay their workers a fair wage, or engage in unethical practices," reported The Wall Street Journal Online in September. "That sentiment seems to be spilling somewhat into their buying habits."

Around the corner from Unity at Green Island, a gift and home accessories store, sales clerk Pam Love says that their customers sometimes request Fair Trade products by name.

"Shoppers are educated and aware," she said. "They know what 'Fair Trade' means and they know many of the things that are available."

Green Island stocks, among other products, Fair Trade soy candles and bamboo salad utensils.

Another retailer who stocks certified Fair Trade gifts is Nicole Maile in her Front Street shop, Euphoria. One especially eye-catching item is the World Finds handbags made by craftspeople in India from recycled saris. They are embroidered and embellished with beads, and surprisingly durable for such a fine fabric.

"I research every product I stock, and I either know where it comes from and who makes it or it's Fair Trade," Maile said. "More and more people know what that means or want to know what it means."

Across the street on the ground floor of Traverse City's Arcade on Front Street, new retailer Felicia Topp has learned how to do a lot with a little. That is just one of the anecdotal skills of Fair Trade operators, or, in her case, those working toward the goal of selling certified products.

"I really admire that way of doing business and I'm working to be part of that group," Topp said, who sells jewelry, d├ęcor, and fine art. "It's admirable. And the stores that do it are admirable."

Topp opened !Que Bonita! (which means "So Pretty" in Spanish) Thanksgiving weekend. She wanted to take advantage of the holiday shopping season and, as a new retailer, was more concerned about having enough stock to open than about selling exclusively certified goods. Now that the store is opened and fully stocked with mirrors and earrings and vases, she plans to seek out Fair Trade merchandise.

"It's available, " she said. "My goal is to bypass the big markets in Mexico the next time I go and head directly into the small villages." Topp said her next trip could be as soon as this spring.

Tired of shopping and in need of a pick-me-up? Fair Trade comes by the cup, too. Coffee is the top-selling certified Fair Trade product imported into the U.S., according to the FTF, representing about 32 percent of gross sales or $15.29 million in 2003. From 2003 to 2004 the FTF estimated the market rose from 18.66 million pounds to 35.16 million pounds, a 74 percent increase.

Coffee, both ground and whole bean, is available in a variety of Fair Trade versions at many locations in Traverse City and the surrounding area including Beaners Gourmet Coffee, Homegrown Eatery, Good Harbor Coffee & Bakery, Cuppa Joe, and Jacob's Well. Most of these retailers purchase some or all of their Fair Trade coffee from Higher Grounds Trading Co., of Lake Leelanau, the only 100% organic and Fair Trade coffee producer in the state. It's also available to consumers on their website, javaforjustice.com.

"I would call us a mission-driven business, certainly," said Phil Hamburg, account rep with Higher Grounds. "We want to provide coffee drinkers with the best cup of coffee they've ever had, but we also want to help provide a good life for the people who grow the coffee. It's all about making a connection between coffee drinkers and coffee growers, even though they may be thousands of miles apart." BN