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CHICAGO: Putting Global Fair Trade Fashion on the Map

Photo by Mata Traders, MataTraders.com

Gone are the days when fair trade meant unflattering designs or met only the needs of a specific niche market. Fair trade has grown up and its offerings now command a respectable space in many women’s closets and jewelry boxes.
 

The fair trade movement may have been around for decades, but only in recent years have fair trade fashions started to really put their mark on the runways and red carpets all over the world. Designer darlings like Emma Watson and Stella McCartney, as well as eco-consumerism trailblazers Livia Firth and Natalie Portman, have lent a celebrity cachet that has suddenly made fair trade fashionable. Top Chicago entrepreneurs and retailers are taking notice and savvy, fashion-forward and socially conscious consumers are responding.

“Fair trade is a nationwide trend, and the options for fashionable offerings are growing every day!” says Renee Bowers, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation (FTF). “Chicago is the home of some leaders in fair trade style. To give just three examples, GREENOLA, Marketplace: Handwork of India and Mata Traders have all been pioneers in creating stylish, fair trade apparel that supports artisan communities. By being at the forefront of this trend, these FTF members are setting a high standard for organizations across the country and around the world.”

Jonit Bookheim, marketing director at Mata Traders (MataTraders.com) in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, believes, “Chicago entrepreneurs, particularly young female ones, are creating fashion-forward, on-trend fair trade products that compete in the mainstream marketplace, and this is a new phenomenon that is filling a void.”

According to Bookheim, Mata’s line of apparel and accessories appeals to stylish women looking for socially conscious fashion choices. Their customer wants to express her individuality, her unique aesthetic and her ethics, but is first drawn to the design, not the fact that the items are fair trade.

Kelly Weinberger, founder of WorldFinds Fair Trade (WorldFinds.com), in suburban Westmont, agrees that today’s consumers are unwilling to sacrifice style, but definitely are asking more questions like, “Where are the products they are buying coming from and how are they made?” Simultaneously, “More people with an interest in fashion are getting involved in fair trade, so it’s created this exciting culmination that I think is only going to grow,” Weinberger notes.

Kate Robertson, a Glencoe native who launched Mayu (ShopMayu.com) after volunteering in Peru with the Peace Corps, believes people are definitely becoming more aware and responsible consumers, but that “fair trade” is another label similar to the “green” movement. She feels customers flock to a product first and their buying decision is reinforced once they read the fine print on a tag and learn it is fair trade.

As is the case with any business model, the fair trade movement isn’t immune to competition and price comparison. Ryen Dwyer, assistant manager of Ten Thousand Villages (Evanston.TenThousandVillages.com), in Evanston, is noticing not only an increased presence of and demand for fair trade products as customer awareness increases, but also more mainstream demand for fair trade products in the form of competition, as more stores like Target and Aldi’s stock products like fair trade coffee.

In a down economy, Dwyer says, customers are more conscious about how they spend money, and fair trade is a perfect category of products that fit their values and pocketbook needs. “Many shoppers tell us that they are looking for gifts that are useful, unique and meaningful,” adds Dwyer. “We also hear appreciation for our increasingly diverse selection. Our products extend beyond the ethnic and handmade look, with greater awareness of trends.”Photo by Greenola, GreenolaStyle.com

Jen Moran, founder of GREENOLA (GreenolaStyle.com), calls her customer the urban activist: “A woman who has experienced other cultures, recognizes global issues, is passionate around advancing her community, draws her fashion inspirations from her travels and loves to tell the story of each of her fashion finds to her closet,” says Moran.

Supporting local artists, American-made items and fair trade was the driving force for Bethany Thomas, her sister Alyssa Thomas and their mother when they opened Comfort Me Boutique (ComfortMeBoutique.com), in Chicago’s Lincoln Park community. “Almost all of our jewelry is either local or fair trade,” says Bethany. “Fair trade items like GREENOLA’s earrings made of recycled [Bolivian] cloth are really unique, and appeal to us because they are also on-trend.” She feels their fair trade offerings are a great complement to their American-made products and meet the goal they had when they opened up their shop: to support local artisans, as well as fair trade artisans.

While Samantha Younis, owner of Blue Rose Gift Gallery (BlueRoseEnterprises.com), in Highland Park, includes fair trade products in her two-year-old shop, she makes sure to include local art and merchandise made in America, too, because customers have expressed their frustration with the local economy.

“The shop local movement is supporting locally owned shops in our neighborhoods,” says Nancy Jones, executive director of Chicago Fair Trade (ChicagoFairTrade.org), the organization that helped put Chicago on the map as a fair trade city. “Most fair trade products are found in locally owned shops—they aren’t carried in chains. Truth is, the U.S. manufactures very little now, so the majority of what we consume—apparel, housewares, high-tech items—are produced abroad. It’s our job to ask under what conditions products are produced and find local outlets to purchase these things. Fair trade has done your homework for you by already asking those questions. As an Alderman said when considering the fair trade resolution in city council, ‘If we insure fair wages for workers abroad, U.S. companies might decide to bring some of those jobs back to the U.S.’”

Customers sometimes forget that fair trade items, although imported, also support the local economy by supporting local retailers, according to Deerfield resident Jan Rodriguez, who launched the North Suburban Fair Trade Network as an extension of Chicago Fair Trade. “Many people think that fair trade and shopping locally are at odds,” acknowledges Rodriguez. “But really, fair trade products are more often found in the small, local, mom-and-pop shops. So really, supporting fair trade can support these small retailers.”

“Stacey Edgar, in her book, Global Girlfriends, noted that fair trade products have to be appealing enough that even people who don’t care about the cause will want to buy them,” adds Rodriguez. “Otherwise, you have what Edgar called the ‘wooden giraffe syndrome’, which is that lots of people will buy one wooden giraffe to help a charity, but they won’t continue to buy them if they don’t really like them.”

Steve English, owner of The Blossom Boys (TheBlossomBoys.com) in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, with his partner Ryan Steinbach, understands the wooden giraffe syndrome, having witnessed it when he opened his florist and gift shop five years ago. “When we started selling fair trade five years ago, the customers’ motivation was buying because it was a Photo by Modahnik, Modahnik.comgood and charitable thing to do,” he says. “Fast forward to 2013, and the motivation is combined with wanting the design, sometimes outweighing the charitable aspect.”

Women aren’t the only ones motivated to support the fair trade movement. Men are playing an increasing role, too. “Women seeking gifts for others or themselves is our primary audience,” states Valerie Brod, marketing manager of Greenheart Shop (GreenheartShop.org), in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. “She wants a unique gift that makes a statement and also supports fair trade. Men are a growing audience for us, as we carry a broader selection of products. He wants fair trade coffee or unique gifts.”

When the fair trade movement started in the United States, little attention was paid to design because the goal was to provide an immediate market for the artisans. A shift is taking place now in which designers are choosing to create their designs using fair trade practices. The results are stylish, on-trend and fashion-forward designs that customers feel better about purchasing because they meet their socially conscious values, too. As more designers choose this production route, fair trade offerings in the Chicagoland area and the nation will only continue to grow.


Megy Karydes loves the artistic element often found in fair trade treasures. She often writes about these and travel-related experiences at WanderingTastes.com.

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