Friday, August 14, 2009

All About Fair Trade & Some Cool Beads...

Hi all! I'm so thrilled today to give my space to guest blogger Amanda Judge, founder and designer of a line of jewelry called "The Andean Collection." No, I haven't turned the blog into a fashionista site. Amanda's work excites me because she is part of the "fair trade movement," a movement to ensure that workers who make the imported goods we love so much are treated with the same dignity and respect, and paid with the same equitable considerations as we afford our domestic workers.

As I'm sure most of you know, one of the reasons we love imported goods so much is because they are often much less expensive than similar domestic products. One reason for this is the cost of labor. In many developing "third world" countries, workers are so poor that a very small paycheck seems like a fortune. Many businesses take advantage of low wages by moving factories to foreign soil, or purchasing goods and services from outside our country. Another reality of the foreign work environment is that they often lack the safety and health regulations we have here, e.g. OSHA, child labor laws, etc. The fair trade movement seeks to encourage firms who do business in these countries to create safe, healthy and equitable workplaces for their laborers, and to pay them fairly. When you buy fair trade certified goods, you are supporting this cause too. By the way, you are also helping to equalize the cost disparity between foreign and local goods, and thereby helping our U.S. workers. Though, of course, not as much as purchasing domestic goods, which is also good for our carbon footprint.

You can learn more about Fair Trade here, You can find Amanda's beautiful collection here: And thank you Amanda for sharing your story and your wonderful photos with us.

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The fair trade movement in North America is certainly gaining momentum, and with due reason. Fair trade products are becoming quite stylish, and are invading retail stores (Macy’s, Anthropologie) that had until recently never carried fair trade products. This mainstreaming of fair trade is wonderful exposure for this burgeoning field, but also poses problems as manufactures jump on the fair trade bandwagon. So what does fair trade really mean, and how can you tell what is really fair trade?

Fair trade has a long history in North America and can be traced back to 1947 when Edna Ruth Byler, a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee, started to import artisan goods from Puerto Rico and sold them out of her car. The Fair Trade Federation defines fair trade as “a system of exchange that seeks to create greater equity and partnership in international trading system” through ethical business practices. But that’s pretty vague too. But instead of reciting textbook definitions, I’ll tell you what fair trade means for me, as the founder of The Andean Collection, a line of eco-friendly and fair trade jewelry.

First a little background. About a year ago I was researching rural poverty in Ecuador for my masters thesis and I fell in love with the eco-friendly materials used in jewelry making such as tagua, pambil, açaí, huayruro and jabon, which are all seeds that can be transformed into beads, All of these materials are indigenous to the lowlands and rainforests of South America and are an amazing alternative to the synthetic materials that plague the modern US jewelry market.

Not only were the materials amazing, but also the indigenous women of the villages completely stole my heart. They were so hard working, but they couldn’t make a decent living as their precarious existence relied on finicky tourists and dishonest middlemen. It seemed to me that this problem was simple enough to fix. They needed decent and constant work in order have hope for a better future.

In order to get these natural materials into the hands (and onto the necks) of smart, chic women everywhere, I began to work with the artisans to utilize their native materials and transform their designs into fashion forward jewelry. And so, The Andean Collection ( was born as a fashion forward, eco-friendly and fair trade line of jewelry.

Personally, fair trade means treating the artisans with whom I work with the same decency and respect that I would give any employee. That I would ask of any employer. In doing so, it is absolutely imperative that I take into account the fact that these employees are at a significant disadvantage, both economically and academically.

When determining pay rates, we look at their costs and help the artisans understand their own businesses. After working with the artisans it became immediately clear that they weren’t aware that they had previously been losing money on certain designs they sold in their local markets. They just didn’t understand all the costs that went into their micro-business.

When searching for suppliers, we help them take advantage of quantity discounts and negotiate favorable terms that they would not have otherwise have been able to obtain. Additionally, the artisans are given shares in the company so that they truly share in our success.

This is not altruistic, but is just good business. Happy, successful people make better employees. This is no earth shattering development.

I have found that the most important thing that I can give an artisan family is constant and steady work. Projects, even if they are fair trade, that enter a community for a couple months and then leave, can often do more harm than good by raising expectations and upsetting the natural balance of power within a community.

As a consumer, you can there are certain labels that you can look out for, but often smaller organizations can’t afford the certification process, although they still may be operating under fair trade principles. Raw materials, such as coffee or cotton, can be certified as fair trade through a fairly well established application and subsequent monitoring process. Defining fair trade in jewelry on the other hand poses additional problems. As opposed to raw materials, which are made up of a single product, jewelry is a composite product, containing little bits of many different materials. Determining where each tiny input comes from is an ongoing task; one that certification agencies are not able to easily monitor. Organizations that work in developing countries in jewelry making can alternatively become a member of the Fair Trade Federation. This process is mostly self evaluatory and less stringent than the certification process for raw materials.

Eco-friendly and fair trade products often, but not always, go hand in hand. In order to be a truly green consumer it is important to think about the environmental and economic impact of your purchases. Ask questions not only about the materials, but also about the people who have poured their heart into making your latest find. The world is changing, and forever the optimist, I think it is for the better. At the very least I know that the world for our artisans is improving, and sometimes those small victories are all we need to get through the day.

- Amanda Judge has a masters in economic development and is the designer & founder of The Andean Collection. The Andean Collection is a fashion forward line of ecologically friendly & fair trade jewelry made from seeds and nuts that are native to the lowlands and rainforests of South America. Their jewelry can be found in numerous retail outlets or online at When Amanda is not in Ecuador, she resides in Manhattan’s East Village.

1 comment:

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