October is Fair Trade Month, and we thought it would be a great opportunity to dig into what this widely-used term really means, and why this movement matters.
Fair trade creates opportunities for producers in developing countries and allows consumers to have a relationship with the farmer or artisan. For producers, fair trade helps grow their businesses sustainably, share their products with the global community, promote fair wages and safe working conditions, and generates support in their production process. We believe the benefits to the consumer are significant as well.
MZ has been members of the Fair Trade Federation since 2013. The Fair Trade Federation (FTF) is an membership organization that promotes 360° fair trade within North America. MZ’s founder and CEO Shelley Tennyson is a board member of the Fair Trade Federation. We got a chance to talk with her about the FTF and their mission and impact.
Q: Why is it so important to be fair trade verified and can you can speak to how the FTF’s vision of 360° Fair Trade is unique?
Shelley: MZ was originally founded with the intention of becoming a member of the Fair Trade Federation, because our mission is to provide economic opportunity for the artisans. It’s always been important for us to not only pay fair wages, but also to have everyone working with us feel like they are an important part of our company’s success. 360° is about looking at fair trade from every angle.
Q: Many people are aware of fair trade verifications but do not understand the full process, can you elaborate on the process of becoming fair trade certified?
Shelley: The application process is a very thorough vetting of each organization. The applicant must provide detailed answers to the many questions about all of the fair trade principles. The FTF staff, along with a committee of peer members, review each application and also check with several references, including the employees in the country of the organization.
Q: We hear a lot about how fair trade businesses are better for communities and consumers. In your opinion what is the greatest impact felt in the communities making fair trade verified products? What is the greatest impact for consumers of fair trade certified products?
Shelley: For the communities the impact is the realization that there are companies that actually care about their welfare and want to involve them in the company as fully participating and valuable employees. Most people we work with have not had this experience before and come to have more self respect. For the consumers, the products become “feel good” purchases that they can be proud of. Being able to trace who made your clothes or grew your coffee creates a consumer expectation of transparency, which can lead individuals to be more discerning of all their purchases.
Q: MZ is a Fair Trade Federation Member, how has being a member affected the business?
Shelley: There are many consumers, both wholesale and retail, who have begun to look for products that are ethically sourced. FTF verification automatically gives us that status without question. We have also become part of an incredible community of organizations who truly support each other with joint marketing and valuable business operation information, not to mention sharing stories of both problems and successes.
Q: Being an FTF board member and the founder of a fair trade fashion brand, what shifts and improvements would you like to see in the global fashion industry?
Shelley: Of course I would love to see all brands become ethically sourced, and I think there is at least some awareness now from many brands to take a look at how their products are made, including wages and working conditions. But there won’t be a real shift until consumer demand makes it so. It will take a lot more publicity and consumer education to overcome the siren song of low prices and fast fashion. So far the shift is slow, but seems to be steady.
Q: How can individual consumers aid in pushing the fashion industry to be more ethical?
Shelley: Individual consumers must take the time to search out brands that are ethically sourced, and demand transparency from those who aren't open about their production practices. The Fair Trade Federation is a start, but we are small and mostly work with artisans in the “Global South” (south of Europe and the US). It would be great to see some larger process where brands of products made in factories could be certified to have decent wages and working conditions. I think the current millennial generation will begin to demand something like this, and hopefully soon! :)
Learn more about the FTF and why fair trade here. October is a great time to pay attention to where you are getting your goods from, and who that is supporting. But don’t let your intentional shopping habits die at the end of the month. Fair trade needs a consistent commitment from consumers to question brands about their practices and choose ethically made products. As the shopping frenzy of the holidays approaches, how can you shape your consumer habits to better match your values?