The Dancer and the Tagua Nut

Fair trade, 3-strand necklace of colorful tagua "buttons".

Tagua Button Necklace

While answering a shopper’s questions at a recent sales event, I noticed a woman debating whether to buy a lovely tagua necklace.  She’d pick it up and look it over, put it down, look at something else, and come back to it. This went on for six or seven minutes.

When I was done with the first customer, I asked if she had any questions.  She said no, she loved the necklace but wasn’t sure she needed another one.  I told her the necklace not only saved rainforests and curbed elephant poaching, it also provided sustainable employment and fair wages for the Colombian artisans who made it.  Without hesitating, she said, “In that case I’m definitely buying it.”

That’s what makes fair trade products more than just another pretty accessory.  Connecting consumers with the artisans and causes behind the products creates an inherent value that mass-produced items will never have.


Tagua Seed Pod

So what’s the full story of this stunning tagua necklace?  It starts with a dancer, musician, and yoga instructor whose 2006 trip to Colombia changed her life and those of some remarkably talented Colombian artisans. Continue Reading »

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Transparency and Accountability: Fair Trade Principle #2

Part of a series explaining the nine principles of the Fair Trade Federation.

Fair trade principle #2-transparency & accountabililtyI worked for corporations for 20 years before launching my fair trade business. I still value the experience gained and relationships made.

What I don’t miss, however, are the turf wars.  People were guarded about who they told what, fearful of relinquishing control over their work.  There was no sense of “we’re in this together.”

There are no turf wars in fair trade. Continue Reading »

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What “Create Opportunity” means in the fair trade world: Fair Trade Federation principle #1

Fair Trade Principle #1

Part of a series explaining the nine principles of the Fair Trade Federation.

Create Opportunities for Economically and Socially Marginalized Producers

If you know anything about fair trade, you know that its most basic concept is to create opportunities for people who are economically disadvantaged or who exist on the edges of society.

I could write a thesis on the definition of economic disadvantage. But it’s easier to give a few examples of what it means in the third-world countries where fair trade is at work:  Continue Reading »


What’s Fair Trade Got To Do With World Elephant Day?


No one needs an elephant tusk but an elephant. Their numbers were once as large as they are: in 1979, there were about 1.3 million African elephants.  By 1989, the population had dropped to half that.  Even though an international ban that same year slowed  the poachers,  in 2012 they killed 35,000 elephants.

Currently, about 96 elephants a day are killed for their tusks, or one elephant every 15 minutes. The street market value of the tusks can reach $15,000.  In China, the largest market for illegal ivory, that value explodes to $100,00-$200,000.

Today, August 12, is World Elephant Day.

“World Elephant Day was launched to bring attention to the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants. The elephant is loved, revered and respected by people and cultures around the world, yet we balance on the brink of seeing the last of this magnificent creature.”  *

The World Elephant Day organization is dedicated to not only preserving these beautiful animals but also to assuring that captive elephants are treated properly or released into protected sanctuaries.

At this point, you may be wondering why I, a fair trade retailer, am writing about elephants.  My fascination with elephants began many years ago when I saw a short documentary about them.  A herd of elephants was walking through a jungle forest and came upon a  pile of bones, clearly elephants bones from their size.

The herd immediately stopped  and began lifting each bone with their trunks, almost as if they were caressing them.  This continued for at least an hour, according to the film, and it felt to me like the elephants were grieving for this dead animal.  It was so touching watching this memorial service of sorts, that the image has stayed with me for years. This short National Geographic video is similar to the film I saw:

When I started Fair Trade Designs, I discovered another connection with elephants. Fair trade, in its own small but not insignificant way, is doing its part to steer consumers away from elephant ivory products to those made with “vegetable ivory.”

tagua cuff and tagua elephant figurine

Tagua cuff & figurine

Vegetable ivory is the common name for a tagua nut, the seed of a rainforest palm tree fruit.  Its feel, color, and carvability are remarkably similar to elephant ivory. South American fair trade artisans transform the nut into creations ranging from the stunning Rainforest Jewelry that Fair Trade Designs sells to carvings and figurines, such as the meticulously carved little elephant statue sold by One World Projects.


Tagua Seed Pod

Because these artisans are working under fair trade conditions, they are paid 2-4 times more than the average wage in their local economies.  This in turn minimizes their need to work on plantations and cattle ranches, both of which require clear cutting rainforests.  So this small but significant fair trade tagua industry has a triple positive impact–it helps lift indigenous South Americans from poverty, aids in saving rainforests, and reduces the market for animal ivory products.

Skeptics may scoff that fair trade’s impact on the elephant population is negligible. But my thinking is that if even one elephant is spared because consumers turned to tagua  rather than animal ivory products, it’s more than symbolic.

So on this day dedicated to saving these towering, fascinating creatures, please support the efforts of organizations like The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which is doing so much to save elephants orphaned by poachers, the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, major supporter of World Elephant Day, and the many other non-profits working to save and care for a fast-disappearing natural wonder of the world. You can also go to the Facebook page of World Elephant Day for more information and to sign the pledge to support save the elephant efforts.



Statistics courtesy of WorldElephantDay.org.

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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


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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