Fair trade gifts have positive impact

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Recycled tote bag from Nomi Network, a Cambodian non-profit that markets tote bags created from colorful, graphic fish-feed and rice bags.

Holiday shopping can be such a grind. You buy, you wrap, you hand it over – times 20. If you’re feeling overly cynical, try some Fair Trade gifting and offer your recipients the story behind their gifts as well.

Not unlike decoding the terms “organic” and “eco-friendly,” figuring out exactly what Fair Trade means and where to find the real deal can be confusing. With no one oversight or regulatory body, a variety of organizations offer Fair Trade certification.

Some distributors of handcrafts and gifty foodstuffs, such as coffee, tea and chocolate, do without a Fair Trade sticker or label on their products but tout their embrace of broad principles, promising they do business ethically.

Others have been through a careful screening process after developing long-term relationships with small farmers and artisan cooperatives around the world.

Most sell online or through small boutiques and shops.

“During the holidays we get all this stuff. It’s all about the stuff and we never take the time to think about where it came from and who made it,” said Renee Bowers, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation, based in Wilmington, Del.

“Fair Trade is really talking about a commitment and the relationship between a buyer and a seller as a method of poverty alleviation,” she said.

The Fair Trade Federation publishes its core principles at Fairtradefederation.org/principles. Transparency is a stalwart in the Fair Trade movement, but if you don’t want the hassle of digging deep into the business arrangements behind the baskets, home decor or accessories you choose as gifts, the federation has about 250 screened members in the United States and Canada.

Some possibilities:


About 20 years ago, in the southeast forests of the Indian state of Rajasthan, a nature preserve was established to preserve the habitat of tigers. People living on the land for centuries were forced off, away from access to wood and water supplies.

Dastkar Ranthambore was established to help villagers relocate just outside the park and provide women a way to generate income.

Among their products are table coverings, placemats and bedspreads inspired by traditional animal murals. They’re created using a hand-blocked printing technique in earth tones, as well as bright blues, greens and yellows.

“The women have an open-air workshop where they work together doing embroidery and sewing,” Bowers said. “They’ve been able to, over time, build houses and really create a sustainable living situation.”

Some of their wares are available at Dolmafairtrade.com and Tenthousandvillages.com.


Roasting in small batches from its Humboldt location in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, Alterra sources about 40 percent of its beans from Fair Trade-certified growers and the rest from small farmers “who are doing a good job in the way they treat the land, their workers and the environment,” says George Bregar, Alterra’s director of coffee. Alterra has developed strong relationships with small farmers in Latin America, east Africa and Indonesia, helping some of them gain access to financing.

For gift-giving, Alterra offers a 100-percent certified Fair Trade gift box, as well as “featured farms” gift boxes that feature coffees from some of the company’s favorite growers.


Handbags and other accessories made of recycled aluminum pull tabs from cans may not be for everyone, but Escama Studio in San Francisco connects their customers with women’s collectives in Brazil where their products are made.

Each item comes with a tag introducing the creator in Brasilia. The company’s website, Escamastudio.com, offers a place where the recipient can write a message to the gift’s creator. Escama translates the messages into Portuguese and sends them on.

Some of the Escama looks incorporate a traditional crochet technique into contemporary Western designs. In addition, the company funds computer literacy programs for those interested among the more than 100 women it works with.

“It’s kind of a cool example of how Fair Trade organizations are trying to innovate in order to support artisans,” Bowers said.

Giftier items include the small Smart Bag, with a fabric liner and detachable cross-body strap, and the Shaggy Bag, a “wristlette” with long fringe in black or silver.

Tote bags

We’ve all seen tote bags made of recyclables. The nonprofit Nomi Network, operating in Cambodia, employs women and girls who were victims of human sex trafficking or are at risk. They make tote bags out of colorful, graphic fish-feed and rice bags.

The Manhattan-based Nomi Network, named for a victim whom co-founder Diana Mao once met, partners with rehabilitation homes and other organizations in Cambodia to train and educate the women who sew the bags. The company also works with trafficking victims in India.

In addition to totes and wallets, Nomi sells a canvas bag with the slogan, “Buy Her Bag, Not Her Body.”

Key to the partnerships Nomi has in Cambodia is providing sustainable employment within the emotional support structure the traumatized women rely on, Bowers said. The company also helps connect them with training in other career fields.

Find the projects at Nominetwork.org.