For children in three Cambodian villages, their futures hinge on the sales of handmade palm fans.
Dam Nak Tro Yeong, Ro Mun and Sway Run villages have only 816 families between them. No one drives and most people don’t even have enough money for bikes. They live in houses that we would likely call huts or shacks on plots of land only large enough to grow food for 8 months of consumption. Nearly 70 percent of the kids in these villages don’t go to school. Darlene Delapaz, manager of Ten Thousand Villages on Walnut Street, has visited these and many of the villages whose products the shop sells.
When Ten Thousand Villages, a national artisanal chain store that has participated in fair trade since 1946, began buying the fans from the Rajana Palm Producers Group, Delpaz said that was the first time many people from the villages had ever held money. They’re saving their profits from the $8 fans to send their kids to school.
“It’s one of the most inexpensive items we have in the store,” Delpaz said.
Still, the Rajana partnership with Ten Thousand Villages is slowly providing the Cambodian village children a chance at education through fair trade.
Champions of fair trade and ethical goods live on stories like these.
There’s Kommaly Chanthavong, the Laotian woman who became a refugee when her village was destroyed by U.S. bombers. At 11, a displaced Chanthavong noticed a city full of people with nothing to do and no hope. She began silk weaving, a skill she and her family had for generations, and went on to teach weaving to other displaced women in the town, turning a family past time into a cooperative of over 3,000 mostly women weavers. Ten Thousand Villages buys a hand-woven silk on bamboo frame for $150 from the cooperative, called Mulberries, which is dedicated to organic silk production and empowering fair trade practices.
Ten Thousand Villages looks like a zen, ethnic getaway. Soothing aqua and burnt orange colors and the sweet, woodsy scents of the cinnamon wood boxes carried in the store fill the atmosphere. The connection between the sales people and the customers is apparent and important. Twice, Delpaz walked away to tend to groups of customers, both of whom made purchases at the store.
To Ten Thousand Villages fair trade entails paying artisans a fair, living wage in advance, maintaining transparency between producers and buyers and having a relationship with everyone they work with—someone from Ten Thousand Villages, Delpaz said, knows each of the artisans they work with and distribute in their store. The store also tries to make sure the artisans they employ procure all their materials ethically.
Bario Neal is a Philadelphia based jewelry company dedicated to using ethical materials and ethical jewelry production.
“Ethically sourced materials,” said Anna Bario of Bario Neal, “are materials extracted and produced in accordance with the best practices available regarding the environmental impact, human health and labor standards.”
Bario Neal works with familiar suppliers like the Tanzania Women Miners Association. Created to give power to women miners in Tanzania, the Tanzania Women Miners Association ensures that mining is “both economically and commercially viable and environmentally sustainable,” raising the standard of living for the women employed at the mine and their families.
Ethical sourcing and production doesn’t necessarily mean fair trade. The term ‘fair trade,’ Bario said, refers to a certification system under the standards of the Fairtrade Labeling Organization International.
Bario Neal’s ethical practices, Bario said, focus on “the traceability of materials, transparency in the supply chain, third party oversight and certification and a network of trusted suppliers.”
Differences in qualification don’t negate the intention of ethical and fair trade practices: improving quality of life for the producer and consumer.
“It’s empowering,” said Anne Ostroff, a sales associate of 11 years at the Ten Thousand Villages Walnut Street location. “It’s empowering not just to the artisans to have a fair livelihood, but to the consumer [to know where their money is going]."
Many times, ‘unethical’ materials are procured at a dire human cost. Sierra Leone’s ‘blood diamonds’ are an infamous example. The diamonds were used to fuel war in the West African country and the miners, despite the high cost of the materials they were mining, lived in extreme poverty.
Another example of the cost of ‘unethical’ material procurement is the Marange diamond fields in Zimbabwe.
“Rape, torture and killings have been well documented there,” said Bario who is a member of the Ethical Metalsmiths advisory board.
These types of situations enable companies to produce goods as cheaply as possible, but at an unnecessary cost said Bario. “Because a region has limited infrastructure, or governmental oversight, or is experiencing conflict does not mean that ethical materials can’t be produced there.”
Fair trade and ethical sourcing go beyond mere production and distribution and delve into the business equivalent of an intimate relationship with the producers. Delpaz tells the story of one Ten Thousand Villages artisan assigned to quality control of handmade paper cards from the Philippines. The woman in charge, Delpaz said, blesses every card before sending them out to the store.
“They’re made with love,” said Delpaz, dreamily.
Philadelphia, she said, is a fair trade city. She and others recently started a website called Fair Trade Philadelphia, designed to direct people where to shop to buy fair trade goods.
Delpaz is right. Philadelphia was named ‘Fairest City in America’ based on a 2013 Be Fair Survey from Fair Trade USA, an organization that audits and certifies business interactions between U.S. companies and their suppliers and producers.
From South Street’s Mushmina, a store with fair trade clothing and accessories from Morocco, to Philly Fair Trade Roasters, a fair trade coffee company founded under their former moniker, Joe’s Coffee, at 11th and Walnut now in Feltonville, Philadelphia is no stranger to the fair trade shop.
Philly based food services company Aramark and Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget (SCA), a company dedicated to preserving forest biodiversity whose American headquarters is located in Philadelphia, were both among the most ethical companies named by The Ethisphere Institute, a New York-based consulting company.
And that’s a reputation our city can be proud of.
“It has a soul,” said Delpaz of fair trade and ethical business practices. “It’s a business with a soul.”