biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies: How to Find and Work with Fair Trade Production

by Stephanie

Today’s Biz Ladies post comes to us from Jenny Krauss, whose company works with fair trade artisans to create accessories for women and home. Since 2005, Jenny has worked with groups in Bolivia, El Salvador, Peru, and Mexico, with a focus on woven and embroidered textiles. She designs the line in her NYC studio and visits the artisans a few times each year. In today’s post, Jenny will address how to find fair trade groups and what to expect when you start the process of outsourcing production. Thank you, Jenny, for such an informative piece! —Stephanie

Read the full post after the jump…

“Fair trade” manufacturing is gaining momentum in the US, especially since the disasters involving apparel workers in developing countries.  At its most basic, fair trade means workers earn a living wage, have safe working conditions, and are respected by their employers. For a full definition see: http://www.fairtradefederation.org/what-is-fair-trade/

There are fair trade organizations around the world that make clothing, jewelry, accessories, and home goods. This column is geared toward readers who are designing/creating products themselves and who want to outsource production using fair trade business practices.

Let’s say you’re knitting some fabulous scarves or turning unusual wood bowls and they’re starting to sell faster than you can make them. If setting up a studio and hiring workers in the US will make the product too expensive, then outsourcing to an artisan group in another country is the way to go. There are many countries where you can get these and other jobs done and a good place to find one is through a sourcing agent. Two good organizations with extensive artisan rosters are: Aid to Artisans and By Hand Consulting.

Once you’ve identified what country and what group you want to work with, a sourcing agent can do much of the work for you or you can take matters into your own hands. Either way, if you can, it’s best to visit the group with multiple samples of what you want produced. You’re starting a business relationship and nothing replaces breaking bread together, talking about your lives, and shaking hands. It will also be a meaningful experience to see how your work can change lives.

When you get down to discussing your wares, be sure to have a list of questions ready.

Are the available materials up to your standards? If not, can you get better quality yarn or wood, etc?

In examining samples of their work, is the craftsmanship as good as you need it to be? If not, show them what you expect. It’s ok to have exacting standards; your company name is going to be on the product.

Think of what could possibly go wrong and discuss it. Be clear about what you will and won’t accept in terms of the quality of the finished product.

Once you are home and communicating via the internet, you can use translation tools if you speak different languages. Explaining something pictorially is also helpful.

The next step is to get samples made. Don’t be surprised if there are problems. Show and tell them what they are and get another sampling round going…I learned this one the hard way.

On one of my visits to Peru, an artisan group showed me a wool belt made using a knotting technique unique to their village. It was a fantastic item so I bought the sample, photographed it, and sent it to our largest belt customer. The customer loved it, kept the sample to photograph for their catalog, and placed an order. I assumed the colors could be reproduced because I had a yarn chart from the artisans, but since the only sample was already with the customer, I matched the yarn colors from the picture I had taken. BIG MISTAKE! There was a rush to finish and I didn’t get production samples until hundreds of belts had been made. When I sent another sample to the customer to approve, it was rejected. Out of five yarn colors in the belt, only two were slightly off from the original, but it was enough to not match the clothes they had paired it with. We remedied the problem and were able to deliver the order on time but not without me having to pay out-of-pocket for the 386 of the rejected belts as well. Ouch.

Once you are happy with the product, they will quote a price. Be sure to have them include labeling and packaging. It’s much cheaper and easier to get this part done there than in the US. The price will be FOB (freight on board) which means you have to add on shipping charges and tariffs. These issues and logistics can be explained more fully by your sourcing agent.

A 50% deposit is required to start production. Be sure to have a “production sample” sent to you so you can confirm they are on the right track. When production is finished, the balance is due and your goods are shipped.

This is a simple outline and there are many more details involved in the process. Ask questions of everyone along the way and you’ll pick up what you need to know.

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  • This is really helpful, I have been making things at home but at the same time really wanted to help artisans. Am glad I came across this blog post .Thank you Jenny

  • I am so happy to see this blog Jenny. I have always been interested in knowing how this fair trade thing works. I am trying to work on hand woven traditional cloths in Ethiopia. I needed help in this particular area. Thanks.

  • I am at the point where I am searching for a fair-trade collective of knitters to help produce my designs. I am clueless as to how to find such a group in another country. Can you offer me help? …is there a list of available groups of knitters??? Thanks!!

    • Marie,

      Sorry for my late reply. Since your comment came so long after the post I didn’t see it. There are knitters in Peru but I don’t know of any groups personally. Try contacting By Hand Consulting and Aid to Artisans. There are knitting groups in Nepal as well so try an internet search for those. Good luck!

  • Such a helpful article! I am a recent fashion design graduate and want to work with with a company that works with these fair trade factories, to get my feet wet before I do it myself. Would you know of a resource to get young designers in contact with companies that do?

    Thank you so much!

  • I feel so glad for finding your article – finally someone who sheds some light on fair trade entrepreneurship. :-) I’ve been doing lots of research on this topic in an attempt to find stories of others who have done the same (fair trade production of whatever products, that is), and I’m actually surprised it’s so hard to find something! I’ve also been looking on LinkedIn and Facebook to find groups for similar entrepreneurs, so we can share and discuss things together. But alas, I couldn’t find anything… Please let me know if there is a group like the one I described. :-) Thank you!