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Women: The Backbone of Fair Trade

joyn-artisanWhenever I attend the various trade shows where many of my fair trade suppliers present their newest products, I am struck by the preponderance of women who have founded and run fair trade companies.  Their sole purpose is empowering marginalized artisans, 70% of whom are women.

A frequent comment from these dedicated women who work directly with impoverished workers is, “We don’t make a lot of money in this business, but that’s not why we’re in it.”

Clearly, the benefits of fair trade for these women go far beyond the monetary.  But what benefits are realized by the artisans who create the beautiful handicrafts?

  • Participating in trade and production can put impoverished women on the road to a better future.  The opportunity to generate an income gives them the economic clout to play a more significant role—or play a role for the first time ever—in their society and their own lives.
  • They begin to be looked at not as chattel but as integral contributors to the welfare of their families. It can also mean they have the financial independence to leave abusive situations.

Cambodian woman making fair trade purses. Free child care is provided for her daughter.

However, this opportunity isn’t easily accessible in all cases for a number of reasons:

  • Back-breaking poverty leaves many women with no money for raw materials or basic equipment like a sewing machine or loom.
  • Even if they are able to buy materials and equipment, they are easily exploited when it comes time to sell their goods, since as individual producers they have little bargaining power.
  • Cultural restrictions and gender inequality may keep them confined to their homes.
  • They may have no access to buyers in their local markets or beyond.
  • Because they operate in what’s known as the “informal economy”, an unregulated environment, government and social protection is non-existent.

Over the last few decades, globalization and outsourcing has brought these informal workers jobs as either self-employed producers or factory employees.  But globalization has also meant a never-ending effort to keep costs low and production volumes flexible to satisfy variable demand.  Manufacturers jump from producer to producer to meet these cost and volume demands.  The end result is the work these women perform is low-paid, insecure, erratic, and  frequently in deplorable conditions. 

fast fashion

Factory workers

Enter fair trade.  To overcome the marginalizing effects of working individually, fair trade organizations assist women in forming cooperatives, artisan associations, and informal groups of home-based or community-based groups.  In some areas, the women have created these groups themselves and have approached fair trade companies to partner with them.


Guatemalan women making bamboo scarves

In addition to the economic benefits of organizing, there are social benefits.  The women develop confidence and have a built-in support network, not to mention more power to advocate for themselves in their political and economic arenas.

Working under fair trade principles creates a number of other advantages for the women:

  • Low-wage work is a thing of the past.  Artisans and craftspeople are paid a fair wage within the context of their local economy. In most cases, the workers earn up to 5 times the average local wage.
  • They also receive funds up front for raw materials and equipment and typically receive a percentage of the sales of their products.
  • It means healthy and safe working conditions.  This can range from comfortable, small workshops or working at home to getting together with other co-op members under shady trees.
  • Gender equality is key to fair trade production.  Women are given equal pay for equal work and afforded the same opportunities as men.  In fact, women comprise the majority of handicraft and textile workers in the fair trade world.
  • Fair trade organizations are in it for the long-term.  Women can depend on the fact that long-term relationships with wholesalers are paramount. A natural outcome of these relationships is developing the women’s business and technical skills to facilitate their independence.

I can’t think of any other type of global enterprise where women run the show on both the front and back ends. It’s a feminist movement in the truest sense of the term.  What we did for ourselves in the ’60s is being carried to the poorest of the poor, making a difference not only in their lives but our own.



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