Fair Trade for All combats poverty, boring gifts
"Looked at from the bigger picture, most of the world's problems are rooted in one thing: poverty. But poor people don't want to beg; all they want is opportunity, to feel worthy. There are artisans the world over who do things in the hope that someone else will appreciate and value them," says Allen Christian, co-owner of Fair Trade for All, commenting on just one aspect of the fair trade movement.
Fair Trade for All, 8730 W. North Ave., sells jewelry, clothing, accessories, gifts and art from all over the world, predominately from 40 countries in the global south. "Fairly traded," these products help support individual producers and those organized into co-ops because they receive the money for the products of their labor directly and at a better rate.
Items include eco-friendly jewelry made from South American tagua nuts, pressed flower jewelry from Columbia (some with silver and semi-precious stones), percussive instruments from Bali, hats, mittens, scarves, table runners – knit items galore – from Nepal and several Central American countries.
A few local items are included in the mix, such as walking canes, social justice books, cards, bookmarks, stationery and some jewelry from local artisans. Pottery from Nicaragua, one of Wisconsin's "sister states," sits alongside Haitian art made out of oil drums.
Oil drums are shipped to Haiti and dumped there, left for the Haitian people to deal with rather than those in oil-producing and using nations. Haitian artists take apart the oil drums, cutting designs into them which make interesting wall art.
Sculptures made from the kisii or "soap stone" which is unique to an area of Kenya and the shona stone from Zimbabwe are available. The sculptures are of families, couples, animals and some abstract art.
Booties and beaded jewelry made by a weaving community in Guatemala, one of the world's poorest regions, are sold alongside items made from recycled rice bags by ex-sex industry slave workers.
Fair trade organizations, such as SERRV (which helped start the Haitian oil drum project) and 10,000 Villages, which Christian says started the Fair Trade movement over 60 years ago, often link their work as "alternative trade organizations" to social development and personal aid programs.
For example, Christian knows that the non-profit suppliers in Ghana are ex-Peace Corps volunteers and understands how the work being done there to support Ghanaians is linked globally through stores like his.
"Business is booming in Ghana, people have enough to eat, the cultural scene is very good. Next door in Sierra Leone is a different story," says Christian.
While Fair Trade for All is a business, supporting the work of people worldwide in meaningful, life-sustaining activity is the owners' reason for opening it.
Co-owner Gail Bennett-Christian, who grew up in Waukesha, was living in Taiwan when she met Christian, who had been there for 10 years. The couple moved back to Milwaukee together in 2003.
Christian, who was born and raised in a North African country, operated a business in Taiwan that organized tours for business people who had come to the area for conventions. When the business failed Christian still had to support himself and was forced to experience firsthand what he had only witnessed growing up: the exploitation of labor in sweatshops.
"In all of those factories, it is no way to live," says Allen, who worked in a number of them, from textiles to electronics.
Bennett-Christian's mother, Alice Foley, told the couple about the fair trade movement and gave them ideas for the store. Foley is a founder of the Plowshare Center in Waukesha, a non-profit that sells fair trade gifts in support of its peace and education mission.
In addition to providing living wages, fair trade is connected to other social justice ideas. For example, Fair Trade for All sells products made by the female residents of a slum community in Pattaya, Thailand, who were sex slaves connected to the area's booming tourism industry. Once these women have outgrown their "useful" period in that industry they are discarded, having no alternatives but to live in the city's slums.
"Fair trade also supports minority populations who are discriminated against for any number of reasons, like Palestinian Christians. Trapped between two camps (Israeli Jews and Muslim Palestinians), artisans there carve nativity scenes and ornaments from olive wood providing one way to survive, since they cannot often get employment," says Christian.
"This is also like certain tribal members in northern Thailand who are not even granted citizenship by the Thai government. Poverty pushes people to extremes, creating problems which travel all over the world."
It was around this time of year in 2006 when Allen Christian and Gail Bennett-Christian opened Fair Trade for All in the Bayshore mall in Glendale. The main store has moved twice since then and has been located in Wauwatosa for the past three years. The couple also has two satellite stores located in Port Washington and in Shorewood.
The time around the December holidays accounts for 50 percent of annual sales for many retail shops like Fair Trade for All. The owners plan to make the Shorewood store, 2223 E. Capitol Dr., a permanent location if it does well there, holiday sales being the test.
"The reason for the expansion is just to survive, to break even, in this tough economy," says Christian.
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