Small companies can benefit from fair trade practices as global consumers demand better working conditions from developing nations.
In 1995, Ana Maria Piedrahita was working as a recently graduated doctor when she came across a decorative box from Uruguay made of dry orange peels. Inquisitive and living in a country with one of the highest consumptions of orange juice in the world, she began experimenting with peels, molding them and figuring out how to create unique designs. She created a series of dolls made of orange peels and began to exhibit them at arts and crafts fairs in the Colombian capital. For Piedrahita, her first contact with the fair trade potential came about thanks to old fruit.
At the turn of the last decade, the Mennonite Church began pushing the idea of fair trade by bringing hand- made crafts from developing nations to the United States, and selling them at church bazaars. It would take a half century until retail stores across Western Europe would catch on to the possibilities of selling “ethnic” products to consumers, increasingly conscious of the communities in Africa, Asia and South America which made them. The charity outreach has been refined and includes global sustainable businesses with sales close to USD $6 billion. “Fair trade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world,” states the Fairtrade Foundation.
After venturing to Europe to boost interest in endeavor, Piedrahita decided to take an artisan’s course in Bogotá and won a scholarship to a fair trade show in Germany. She hired an engineer, Javier Cardenas, to provide management of her start-up company, Sapia. In 1999, she was working from her parents’ garage with four hired helpers producing 200 dolls a month. Her hobby grew into a sustainable company, which employs 32 artisans and works with another 50 as independent contractors.
Sapia’s employees come from all walks of life and have brought their own set of eco initiatives to the company, One employee began collecting discarded peels and forged deals with juicers to buy organic waste. Today, he oversees ma- chines and is a financial assistant within the company. Thanks to a steady he is able to study English at the Universidad Nacional. “We believe we need to help our people grow with us,” claims Piedrahita.
Unlike more traditional sales techniques, fair trade requires an advance payment of up to 50 percent for an order. This allows companies such as Sapia to work with little or no stock. When an advance order is received, the product is put together. In an unassuming house, Sapia’s employees cut out pieces and organize product kits which, are later assembled in the homes of contracted employees, many from the low-income Ciudad Bolívar neighborhood. The outsourcing maintains overhead low and provides income opportunities for single mothers willing to work from home. At the end of each month the employee turns in a completed kit for payment.
Like other fair trade affiliated companies Sapia, realizes that small businesses must innovate to stay in afloat. An important philosophy is to work with natural or recycled materials. Sapia recently began to experiment with tires. “With recycled tubes, we can reach a larger market,” claims the founder. Other fair trade companies such as Ten Thousand Villages and Hope for Women (HFW) sell Sapia’s trendy tire messenger bags.
When Evan Goldsmith, co-founder of Hope For Women, visited a small village in the Indian Himalayas in 1993, he watched how trained artisan women worked long hours to craft beautiful handmade cards using locally-grown flowers. With limited opportunities to sell their cards, they struggled financially to support themselves and their families.
Realizing he had the opportunity to help these women bring their product to the mainstream market, Evan created Hope For Women (HFW) when he returned to the United States. He believed that, “when a woman’s life is improved and she has more opportunities, it empowers her, her family and the entire community.” This vision grew to include women and their businesses from all over the world.
Since HFW began working with Sapia in 2008, Evan has watched them broaden their product line, recruit new suppliers and expand their business in Europe. In his years working with fair trade, Goldsmith has also seen lives change and hope renewed because an opportunity was given to take control through work rather than being given a handout. Working in a clean, safe environment for a fair wage gives people a much greater ability to change their lives with a rippling effect to family, friends and the community. Tangible change is seen in better access to health care, improved housing, higher educational opportunities for children and better diet. “It also provides pride and dignity to those involved, which is harder to quantify but extremely important,” says Evan.
In a partnership with Aveda cosmetics in 2010, HFW made the single largest fair trade purchase of a sustainable rain forest product in Colombian history. The tagua seed with its hard exterior was used in decorative hairbands for gift sets sold in North America. Hope for Women suggests that, “by supporting fair trade goods and businesses you have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life each time you reach for your wallet.”