Getting a fair deal for good work

Trade agreements aid craftspeople abroad


December 03, 2006|By Anne Tallent | Anne Tallent,Sun Reporter

If you are ready to add some culture to your home or just shake up your environment, it's easy to take delight in carved masks from Kenya, sculpture and fabric from Burkina Faso, dolls from Uganda and South Africa, cut-metal wall hangings from Haiti, drums from Ghana and Senegal, and chess sets from Cameroon and Tanzania.

It may be even easier to take such pleasures, knowing that the artists are seeing a fair share of the profits and that the people selling the imports went out of their way to not exploit workers in developing countries.

Today, a growing number of retail stores are operating under fair-trade agreements with workers from developing countries, including those in Africa and the Caribbean, to produce and then sell arts and crafts.

In these arrangements, producers earn up to 30 percent of the retail price. That's more money in their pockets because there is no broker, or middleman. Workers deal directly with the selling agent. The agreements also address working conditions. (See box on fair trade.)

"One of the ideas," says Mary Morrison, executive director of the Fair Trade Resource Network, "is to preserve the history and the craft of indigenous people of the world."

Those who participate in selling the arts and crafts help disseminate culture, advocates say.

"It's a comfort to me to be around my own culture," says Ruby Shaw, who has operated her Mahogany Exchange on West Saratoga Street since 1993.

A stalwart in the grueling import trade, she operates a store of arts and crafts as well as a breathtaking gallery of high-end African and African-American artwork and furniture, both historical and contemporary.

"I try to tell African-Americans: `Try putting culture in your own home and see how you feel.' "

Shaw's fair-trade items are among her less-expensive goods and include South African place mats ($15) depicting lions, zebras and other wildlife, and collectible cloth dolls ($35).

African and Caribbean imports are made of various materials, from soapstone and juju beans to recycled soda cans and used oil drums.

"The piece I find most interesting is the creativity [producers show] with what Westerners perceive as little resources," says Kerri Uehlein, a local assistant manager for Ten Thousand Villages, an organization begun by the Mennonite Central Committee in 1946 that has 160 stores in North America.

The Fells Point store, which has operated since 1996, was followed last year by another at the Shops at Kenilworth in Towson.

Ten Thousand Villages and A Greater Gift are the two largest sellers in the United States of fair trade-imported arts and crafts from around the world.

They saw $30 million in sales last year, up 50 percent since 2000.

The profits from these items often go to support the needs of each community, according to officials and the merchants' Web sites.

For instance, A Greater Gift sells such items as jams and chutneys ($4.50) and patterned baskets ($22.50) produced by the Eswatini Swazi Kitchen.

The proceeds from these items benefit children orphaned by AIDS in Swaziland, the tiny nation bordering South Africa and Mozambique. The International Widows Association of South Sudanese Refugees in Uganda, another producer for A Greater Gift, creates baskets ($28 and $150), bowls ($40) and trays ($30 and $45) whose sales assist widows, orphans and disabled victims of the Sudanese conflict who have taken refuge in Uganda.

A Greater Gift, which has a large store in New Windsor in Carroll County, is a nonprofit begun in 1949 by the Church of the Brethren to help refugees of World War II.

"Over the next few years," says Linda Kjeldgaard, retail director of the store, "we'll be focusing on Africa [more]. The need is there. We can get in there now -- that hadn't been the case for a while."

Most fair-trade items cost about the same as their regular-trade counterparts.

The goods -- including art, Nativity scenes, toys, musical instruments, jewelry and textiles -- vary widely in price and style. A warbling whistle, a bird-shaped instrument from Cameroon, sells for $3.50 at Ten Thousand Villages. Sculptures from Ten Thousand Villages and A Greater Gift can cost hundreds of dollars.

In some stores, it's sometimes difficult to verify what's fair trade. The Fair Trade Federation offers a list of fair-trade sellers on its Web site. Knowledgeable retailers who carry such goods should be able to tell you about them.

What is fair trade?

For an item to be considered fair trade, retailers must pay the maker a fair wage -- at least the producing country's minimum wage, and sometimes more, to ensure the person a "living wage."

The producer of a fair-trade product earns 15 percent to 30 percent of the retail price. The producer of an import that's not fair trade would generally earn 10 percent or less.

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