From the February 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

Visitors to Traditions in Olympia, Washington, may be lured into the shop by the smell of incense or the strains of international music. They may stay to browse its collections of carved wooden animals from Kenya, lacquer pins from Russia or colorful Guatemalan shawls. They may even stop to sip a cup of environmentally correct coffee, grown by independent farmers and without damage to the environment, in the adjoining cafe. But no matter how long they stay, one thing is certain: They'll leave with an education.

That's because owner Dick Meyer's goal isn't simply to sell wonderful products--it's to promote awareness of working conditions in developing countries around the world, often by telling the stories of the artisans who produce his store's merchandise. Part of a growing international "fair trade" movement helping to develop markets for disadvantaged artisans, Meyer works with cooperatives, collectives and wholesalers worldwide to ensure that his wares are not only appealing but socially responsible.

"I've always been in-volved with social and community issues," says Meyer. "I liked the idea of selling products that benefit not only my community but the community of the artisan."

According to the International Federation for Alternative Trade (IFAT), the primary purpose of fair trade is to "trade with concern for the social, economic and environmental well-being of marginalized producers in developing countries." Products purchased from participating groups are guaranteed to have been made under humane working conditions--no sweatshops, no convicts and no exploitative child labor.

"When consumers purchase something from a fair-trade store," says Candi Smucker, co-owner of retail store Baksheesh in Sonoma, California, "they're guaranteed the person who made the product is being paid fairly and isn't working in sweatshop conditions," a claim major retailers can't always make.


Moira Allen is the author of Writing.com (Allworth Press) and editor of Global Writers' Ink, an electronic newsletter for international writers. She has been writing professionally for more than 20 years.

Where The Money's At

Of course, values alone aren't enough to run a business. "Good intentions can't replace business skills," says Meyer. "We succeed because of hard work."

Cheryl Musch, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation Inc. (FTF), says FTF and other fair-trade organizations offer several business advantages to retailers, including:

  • Networking. If one of the organization's members finds a good supplier, word quickly spreads.
  • Bypassing hassles. Fair-trade organizations put you in touch with international cooperatives and wholesalers who deal with the international language barriers and government regulations, and can help you locate other sources of supply if problems arise.
  • Communicating needs with producers. "Cooperative middlemen work with artists to develop products that sell in the U.S. market," says Meyer. The result: products tailored to consumer tastes while reflecting the craftsman's styles and techniques.
  • Promoting. Members of FTF are listed online and in print directories, receive marketing and promotional materials, and can use the FTF logo on products, packaging and at trade shows. "A number of predisposed consumers buy from companies they believe are socially responsible," says Musch. "This gives you access to an established customer base."

But the greatest advantage of all may be the friendliness in this global industry--Meyer, for one, is always happy to advise other fair-trade entrepreneurs. In many ways, explains Musch, the fair-trade movement represents "a spirit of cooperation rather than competition."

Next Step

The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief's links to international fair-trade organizations

La Cittá Invisible's resource list of fair-trade shops and contacts worldwide

Oneworld.net's guide with articles, information and links to fair-trade organizations and resources