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Sue Fish
Artisan warping bamboo in a fair trade cooperative in Guatemala.

EDGEWISE: Shop fair for the holidays

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By Thursday, Dec 10, 2015 Trade and Commerce 1

The holidays are here and we have a vast number of choices as to how we shop and what kinds of gifts we give. As the owner of a fair trade business, the Women’s Peace Collection, I am thrilled to see the growing movement toward socially conscious shopping.

The Women’s Peace Collection, based in Great Barrington, sells high quality, handcrafted products made by impoverished artisans across the globe. We sell online and at festivals and this fall I have been incredibly moved by a trend I perceive among shoppers. At local festivals such as the Berkshire Botanical Garden Harvest Festival and the Lenox Apple Squeeze, customer after customer questioned me about where the products were made, how much the artisans are paid, and other inquiries showing that they were truly interested in both the story behind the product and giving a gift that gives back.

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These impoverished Guatemalan elders receive food from the proceeds of beaded jewelry sales. Photo: Sue Fish

There are so many great ways to shop consciously: we can buy from independent, local stores and from local artists; we can buy items made in the United States and products that are sustainable and ethically made. And high on this list is my true passion – fair trade.

So what exactly is fair trade? Most people have heard of it and have some sense of what it is, but for the majority it’s still a vague notion that may not be fully understood. The Fair Trade Federation, of which the Women’s Peace Collection is a member, states that “Fair trade is an approach to business and to development based on dialogue, transparency and respect that seeks to create greater equality in the international trading system. Fair trade supports farmers and craftspeople in developing countries who are socially and economically marginalized.”

In a nutshell, fair trade creates opportunities for marginalized artisans and farmers in developing countries by paying fair wages, respecting cultural identity, preserving traditional crafts, cultivating environmental stewardship, creating safe and empowering working conditions, and ensuring the rights of children. Fair trade cooperatives have been formed all over the world, where artisans and farmers are learning about business, marketing and design.

One question I am frequently asked is “what percentage goes back to the artisans?” Each cooperative is run differently, but in the majority of cases the artisans set their own prices and are either paid 50 percent up front or given the raw materials to make the products so they don’t accrue any debt in order to produce. Once an order is complete they are paid in full. All of the artisan partners I work with have already been paid for their work.

The Hear My Voice Wrap, handcrafted by deaf women in a fair trade cooperative in Kenya.

The Hear My Voice Wrap, handcrafted by deaf women in a fair trade cooperative in Kenya.

I have seen firsthand how fair trade truly does change lives. Last winter, I had the privilege of traveling to Guatemala with a fair trade non-profit, visiting numerous artisan groups in remote areas of the country. These talented women told us over and over how they had virtually no income until fair trade cooperatives were formed which paid them fair wages and provided new outlets to sell their goods in the United States and Canada. Many of these women were widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, leaving them with no vehicle for earning money except for the weaving, sewing or jewelry-making skills they had learned as children. Now, because of the opportunities fair trade provides, the Women’s Peace Collection, along with other U.S. vendors, sells their products and provides them with much-needed income.

I believe that most people truly want to give back and make a difference in the lives of others. My online customers often include gift notes with their purchases, telling the recipient how it was made, who it benefits, or that “this is a gift that gives back.” It’s heartwarming to read them and know that people really do want to give meaningful gifts. Products with a specific cause such as those that are made by survivors of human trafficking or deaf women in Kenya, or those that benefit elders or environmental issues are the most popular. And people love giving the items with inspirational messages, such as our “Start Small, Dream Big, Change Lives” bracelet, and our “Peace for All” necklace. Yes, people do care.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIndividuals also love giving to their favorite organizations, so the Women’s Peace Collection has been partnering with fundraisers to benefit non-profits, some local, some national. For example, we donated a percentage of sales to WBCR-LP radio at an event earlier this year, and we recently did the same for Hands in Outreach, a non-profit run by Ricky Bernstein of Sheffield, which provides educational opportunities for girls in Nepal. And we have an ongoing relationship with one of our favorites, Dining for Women, where we donate 10 percent of all orders placed through their website, diningforwomen.org. We hope to have many more events in 2016 and are looking for additional fundraising avenues.

We really can make a difference in the world just by how we shop. Artisans in remote areas across the globe are using their hands to make incredibly beautiful products that many of us here are privileged enough to have the resources to buy. We are all connected in this world we share and have a responsibility to take care of each other. Isn’t it remarkable how in our small, beautiful corner of the world we can make a difference in a family’s life in Guatemala, India, Nepal and Kenya just by the kind of holiday gift we buy? I am truly in awe of that concept – hence my passion for fair trade!

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sueportrait1cropped_mediumSue Fish, owner of the Women’s Peace Collection, has been a social worker for more than a quarter-century, committed to working with people of all ages and backgrounds. Her first work in the field was with female victims of domestic violence, and since then she been passionate about women’s issues both in the U.S. and internationally. Fluent in Spanish, she has also worked for many years with the Berkshire immigrant community, helping them adjust to life in their new country and doing advocacy work on their behalf. Sue has been interested in supporting international artisans since her travels through Peru and Ecuador in the 1980’s. The Women’s Peace Collection has fulfilled a lifelong dream of owning a socially responsible, fair trade business while doing her part in alleviating poverty and advocating for marginalized women and families across the globe.

Author photoThe weekly EDGE WISE column is curated by Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D., associate professor of comparative literature, gender studies and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and the Founding Director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Women writers interested in publishing in EDGE WISE can find writers’ guidelines on the Festival website, or may submit queries or columns to Jennifer@berkshirewomenwriters.org.


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  1. anni crofut says:

    Wonderful article about a very important issue. I am glad you are helping to raise people’s consciousness about the impact of their wallet as they buy their Christmas presents and in general! The Women’s Peace Collection is a fabulous company.

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