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Reflections on Fair Trade

fair trade artisans

As October is Fair Trade month, I wanted to take a moment and reflect on what Fair Trade means for me and specifically for all of us at Yabal.

I think for people that only look at Fair Trade through a business, money-bottom-line lens, it might not be the “smartest” business move. Normally in business school they teach you to look for the hole in the market, find out where the demand is, and then figure out how you can fill that niche.

Well for us at Yabal, it’s not quite so simple.  We can’t just look at the bottom line. We didn’t start this project because we thought there was an urgent need for more textile accessories in the market. We started Yabal because there were two rural communities in Guatemala that were in desperate need of job opportunities and sources of income. They are communities that have high rates of illiteracy, very few professional job skills, that are isolated and far from the city, and most of all, they are communities that do not own their own farm land which means that they depend on money in order to eat and to survive.

But… they are also communities that have a rich centuries-old weaving tradition- A unique artisan skill that is passed down from mother to daughter. This is what we decided to focus on and together we built a business based on creating products that were possible for them to make given the many limitations in their lives.

Allison with cooperative leaders, Santa and Paulina.

Allison with cooperative leaders, Santa and Paulina.

For me, fair trade is about bottom-up businesses and using our current economic trade system to actually, for once, help the producers first. Of course, we also need to be smart business people and figure out how we can at the same time fill a gap in the market- which solves the sustainability part of the equation. But this deeper commitment to uplifting producers makes this work doubly hard. When our artisans make a mistake or when clients would like products that are cheaper or faster to make, we won’t just jump ship and find a new artisan group to work with. We have a long-term commitment with our artisan groups to advance hand-in-hand together.

Fair Trade is about People and Profit. It is doubly difficult to maintain a commitment to both as it means, in some cases, deciding to take the less profitable route in order fulfill our larger social mission and commitment to our artisans. But it also is the most rewarding work I have done, knowing that providing meaningful sustainable work is so much more life changing and empowering than simply giving charity. I love helping others to help themselves.

I hope consumers will take some time to think about their priorities when purchasing. Just as we as fair trade businesses take on the double commitment of people and profit, consumers can also be called upon to doubly commit to both their personal needs/desires as well as the greater global good when making their purchasing choices. At times it means looking a bit harder to find those smaller, lesser known, companies that are committed to a larger social mission and decide to spend your money with them as opposed to a mass-produced big box store. Other times, it means buying less but buying higher quality hand-crafted products that will last longer. Each person can find hundreds of ways to contribute to this world but I hope we can all reflect on the idea that sometimes even the smallest most mundane of actions, like buying a thing, can have huge repercussions across the globe.

-Allison Havens, Director of Yabal

fair trade guatemala


We become human only in the company of other human beings.  And this involves both opening our hearts and giving voice to our deepest convictions. …When we shrink from the world, our souls shrink, too.

Paul Rogat Loeb

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