Fair-trade niche full of kind hearts
By Ben Dobbin
By Ben Dobbin
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Teresa Fritschi seeks out artisans in hidden corners of Scotland, pays generously for their lamb's-wool blankets, Orkney driftwood chairs and organic-tweed jackets, and peddles their indigenous craftsmanship to a far-flung audience over the Internet.
James Potemkin is a kindred spirit who specializes in selling the rugs, furniture and art he finds in rural Mexico and Guatemala. And Raquel Marchenese fills up her One World Goods store with onyx from Pakistan, scorched gourds from Peru and scented soaps from a women's cooperative in Chicago.
They are a new breed of kindhearted capitalists: In a cutthroat global economy, they not only pay their suppliers more, but help them ring up extra sales by tacking on comparatively low markups.
They share a passionate belief in fair trade, a fast-spreading phenomenon that aims to give businesses, cooperatives or solo artists in poor or marginalized parts of the world a higher price for what they create and a more direct route into lucrative markets in America, Europe and Asia.
"There's so many problems in the world," said Marchenese, a Filipino immigrant who draws on scores of volunteers to run her nonprofit store in an upscale plaza in Pittsford, a Rochester suburb. "I cannot move mountains but I can do the little bit that I do and I feel good about it."
Fritschi, 45, launched her Thistle & Broom venture last spring after losing a corporate marketing job and spending the next three years back home in western New York trying in vain to land another one. On a whim, she took a trip to Scotland and discovered its creative soul in locations as diverse as inner-city Glasgow and the Shetland and Orkney Islands.
Linking up with some 70 artists, many of whom have leaned on part-time jobs to earn a living, she began selling their one-of-a-kind apparel, tableware and textiles online.
What's unusual about her burgeoning business, which she operates for now out of Edinburgh and a temporary home in New London, Conn., is her determination to pay her partners what they're worth. They set their own prices — she sometimes has to prod them to charge more — and get 66 percent of the retail sale.
Fritschi said her usual 33 percent markups are far below the 200-plus percent norm in the homegrown-luxury-goods market. She expects to generate more than $100,000 in sales in her first year and intends to set aside 8 percent of her profits for cultural-heritage and conservation causes in Scotland.
"In the grand scheme of world economics, this is a drop in the bucket but it's important for people who wouldn't normally be able to reach this kind of audience," she said. "I have customers from Norway and Sri Lanka and Southern California, people who are never going to get on a plane and drive eight hours to get to some of these remote places."
The fair trade movement sprouted in the United States after World War II and appears at last to be coming into its own after years as an activist-based niche.
While still making up a fraction of commerce, fair trade is increasingly being tugged in front of mainstream audiences by organizations like Oakland, Calif.-based Transfair USA, which certifies fair-trade compliance for a lengthening list of commodities from coffee, cocoa and tea to sugar, rice and fresh fruits.
Those goods alone accounted for at least $500 million in U.S. sales last year, and $1.8 billion worldwide, said Transfair's certification expert, Christopher Himes. The best performer is fair trade coffee, which has captured nearly 2 percent of the U.S. coffee market, he said.
"We don't want to make it harder to buy coffee or bananas or anything else," Himes said. "We just want to make different options available for people who want to do the right thing but don't really know how."
Among the independent group's certification requirements are that producers get stable minimum prices, don't allow forced or child labor and use environmentally sound, sustainable methods of production. Its ethical-label framework doesn't yet straddle the apparel or craft markets.
Like Fritschi, Potemkin dispenses with certification by going directly to the source. He knows by name many of the Mexican rug weavers, potters and wormwood-furniture makers he meets. On monthslong expeditions twice a year, he spends up to $40,000 to refill his Animas Traders and Animas Alta stores here.
"I don't argue over price and I'm not greedy," Potemkin said by telephone during a recent stop in central Mexico. "In my heart, it's very important to me that I can't make more than the artisan."
Potemkin, 59, a "fair trader" since 1988 when he quit a teaching job, delights in seeing his regulars earn enough to keep their children in school or to add a room to their home.
"I just buy things that I love and things I know will sell," he said. "The market still is going to determine whether what they do has value."
Globalization has been going on for a long time, but what's new is the exploitation of cheap labor by corporations, Potemkin said.
"If you buy a shirt for $2 and sell it for $30, why not manufacture for $5?" he said. "It's not very much and it transforms communities — they'll have economic vitality in that region as opposed to economic enslavement."
One World Goods buys from fair trade groups such as Ten Thousand Villages, a 75-store national network founded by the Mennonites in 1946, and turns over most of its profits — about $50,000 last year — to charities. "The better we do, the better it is for the artisans," Marchenese said.
"Many things here have a truly sculptural beauty, a warmth to them — they're not touristy things," said a regular customer, Barbara Beller, 63, who once picked out a soulful mask made in Congo with oddly uneven eyes.
"I'm always wondering who made that and I wish I knew the artist," she said.
The AFL-CIO labor federation supports "commercial enterprises that want to compete by showing sincerely that they have a social conscience," said its chief economist, Ron Blackwell.
"God knows we have to provide a space in the world's economy for the least developed countries," Blackwell said. "We've got 2 billion people on this planet who live on less than $2 a day."