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How a yen for travel launched a fair trade business.

Fair trade handbag workshop in Thailand, Giovanna Mantilla

Giovanna at Thai handbag workshop.

Another story in a series about the inspiring fair trade businesswomen who supply our beautiful products. 

Giovanna Mantilla likes to travel.  She and her mother took off about 7 years ago on an excursion through India and Southeast Asia that lasted six months.

Along the way, she kept stumbling on small artisan groups and families hand crafting beautiful accessories. Something tugged at her that finding these artisans was not a coincidence.

She wanted to help the workers sell their products back in the States and pay them fair wages.  So she shipped herself boxes and boxes of goods.  When she got home, she started selling the crafts at house parties.

Even though fair trade wasn’t (and in many cases still isn’t) broadly understood, Giovanna was heartened by the enthusiastic response from the friends and family who came to her house parties. They wanted to make a difference with their purchases.

fair trade jewelry, Mayan beading, Guatemalan beaded jewelry

Princesa jewelry, available in a variety of colors.

Helping them make that difference sent Giovanna on another treasure hunt, this time to Mexico. Her planned itinerary was to continue through Central America and into South America.

When she got to Guatemala, “It was magical,” she says, “I felt at home.”  The group she was traveling with kept on going, but she stayed in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala where she began talking with jewelry and handbag artisans.

This was the genesis of her business, aMano Fair Trade. (For the story of the Guatemalan artisans Giovanna works with, see my blog, “My Guatemalan Trip: I learn to make a Princesa beaded necklace.”)

fair trade handbags, Thai handbags, hand embroidered purses

Handbag artisans in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A couple of years later, she began working with Hmong artisans in Northern Thailand, near the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Her nose for high quality and fashionable handmade goods led her to these artisan groups who make intricately embroidered bags.

There is one artisan group she primarily works with, 26 women and a few men.  “We’re really proud of them,” she says.  Through the fair income they’ve earned from selling their handbags to aMano Fair Trade, they were recently able to move to a large, open-air workspace in Chiang Mai.

fair trade handbag, embroidered purse, Thai embroidery

Hill tribe artisan and her beautiful embroidered handiwork.

The workshop has 14 sewing machines, a leather work-station, and stacks and stacks of vintage fabrics.  Many of the bags aMano Fair Trade sells where leather is part of the design come from this shop.

fair trade handbag, fair trade purse, embroidered handbag, Thai purse

Flora & Fauna hand-embroidered handbag, available in 4 colors.

The handbags made with cloth fabric only are created in individual homes in villages outside Chiang Rai.  Each woman makes only one style of bag, like the Flora and Fauna Embroidered Bag sold by Fair Trade Designs.  Three of the artisans are women with disabilities who assist the seamstresses by cutting fabric and sewing in the lining for each purse.

In addition to the gorgeous bags she sells from Thailand, Giovanna also brings stunning jewelry to the U.S. market.  A beautiful example is the Piedra cuff. Hand-braided wax cords are generously covered with re-constituted semi-precious stones such as amethyst, mountain coral, and mother of pearl.

fair trade jewelry, fair trade cuff, amethyst bracelet

Piedra Cuff, also available in Mountain Coral & Mother of Pearl.


A husband and wife designed the cuffs in their home.  Business has been good enough that they’ve moved into a small workshop where 12 women artisans work side by side with them.

Traveling has given Giovanna the opportunity to experience the magic and beauty of Guatemala, Thailand and many other countries. More importantly, it has allowed her to help those in need by providing sustainable revenue sources and contributing to the communities in which these talented artisans live.

Piedra cuff in the making.

Piedra cuff in the making.


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A Fair Trade Summer

A Fair Trade Summer

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Fair Trade Clothing: The Fast Fashion Antidote–Earth Day 2014

Fast fashion–the burgeoning trend of quickly and cheaply moving clothing from the catwalk to consumer to capitalize on current fashion trends.  Companies using this approach promote it as fast, low priced, and disposable.  Opponents point to its shoddy workmanship and its polluting effects from production and the decay of the tossed-aside synthetic fabrics.

Source: http://kennedylive.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/

Fair trade fashion, the polar opposite, promotes natural and organic raw materials, environmentally safe production methods, and non-toxic dyes.  Products aren’t churned out in faceless factories, but in small workshops and co-operatives where handcrafted artistry and attention to detail are the underpinnings of its approach. Continue Reading »

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Fair Trade Rethinks Earth’s Baggage–Earth Day 2014

#3 in a series about fair trade and the environment in celebration of Earth Day 2014.

fair trade handbags, purses made from recycled plastic bags

Low-caste Indian women collect used plastic bags for purses.

Did you know that:

• About 1 million plastic bags are used every minute.
• A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade.
• More than 3.5 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were discarded in 2008.
• Plastic bags are the second-most common type of ocean refuse, after cigarette butts (2008)
• Plastic bags remain toxic even after they break down.
• Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.*

Did you also know that fair trade artisans create a handbag completely from used plastic bags?  And that it’s actually quite chic? Continue Reading »


The Green Economy, Fair Trade, and Women-Earth Day 2014

women in the green economy

Women and the Green Economy (WAGE) is the Earth Day Network’s initiative to bring more women into the decision-making process about our environment. While the focus of WAGE is to increase leadership roles at the top of the green economy, let’s not forget the other end of the economic chain–the women who create “green” products.

Nowhere are women more in the forefront of the green economy than the fair trade jewelry sector.  From taking trash to treasure, preserving rainforests, to using the earth’s natural and renewable bounty, women who make fair trade jewelry have been quietly protecting the earth for decades.  Here are just a few examples:
Continue Reading »


Why is a Fair Trade Retailer Writing About Earth Day?

Did you know Earth Day was started in 1970 by a U.S. Senator?
Earth Day 1970

A polluted town, circa 1970.

At the time, Americans were guzzling gas in their huge V8 cars, factories were dumping pollutants into waterways and onto the land.  Pollution seemed to be an accepted way of life. Continue Reading »

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“A Month We Should Not Need”

We like to think of January as the month of new beginnings, a month to erase the past year’s troubles and focus on fresh starts.  But for millions of women, men, and children a fresh start is beyond imagination.  They are the victims of human trafficking who, in the words of President Obama, “are bought, sold, beaten, and abused, locked in compelled service and hidden in darkness. They toil in factories and fields; in brothels and sweatshops; at sea, abroad, and at home. They are the victims of … a crime that amounts to modern-day slavery.”

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.  January 11 is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. A Massachusetts newspaper editorial1 calls it a month we should not need.  But reality makes it necessary. It’s a problem of enormous magnitude that deserves not just one month, but a year-round effort to eradicate. Continue Reading »


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