Not unlike the terms "organic" and "eco-friendly," figuring out exactly what Fair Trade means and where to find the real deal can be confusing. With no one oversight or regulatory body, a variety of organizations offer Fair Trade certification.
Some distributors of handcrafts and gifty foodstuffs like coffee, tea and chocolate do without a Fair Trade sticker or label on their products but tout their embrace of broad principles promising they do business ethically.
Others have been through a careful screening process after developing long-term relationships with small farmers and artisan co-operatives around the world.
Most sell online or through small boutiques and shops.
"During the holidays we get all this stuff. It's all about the stuff and we never take the time to think about where it came from and who made it," said Renee Bowers, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation, based in Wilmington, Del.
"Fair Trade is really talking about a commitment and the relationship between a buyer and a seller as a method of poverty alleviation," she said.
The Fair Trade Federation publishes its core principles at Fairtradefederation.org/principles. Transparency is a stalwart in the Fair Trade movement, but if you don't want the hassle of digging deep into the business arrangements behind the baskets, home decor or accessories you choose as gifts, the federation has about 250 screened members in the United States and Canada.
About 20 years ago, in the southeast forests of the Indian state of Rajasthan, a nature preserve was established to preserve the habitat of tigers. People living on the land for centuries were forced off, away from access to wood and water supplies.
Dastkar Ranthambore was established to help villagers relocate just outside the park and provide women a way to generate income.
Among their products are table coverings, placemats and bedspreads inspired by traditional animal murals found on homes. They're done using a handblocked printing technique in earth tones but also brighter blues, greens and yellows.
"The women have an open-air workshop where they work together doing embroidery and sewing," Bowers said. "They've been able to, over time, build houses and really create a sustainable living situation."
Some of their wares are available at Dolmafairtrade.com and Tenthousandvillages.com.
Roasting in small batches from its facility in Orange, Mass., Dean's Beans buys only shade-grown (no pesticides) coffee from villages and importers fully committed to Fair Trade. In addition, the company works on pre-financing, helping small farmers gain access to reasonable credit.
"From the consumer level, it's those details that we often forget about," Bowers said. "But for the farmers, that's really key because a lot of times they only have access to credit that is incredibly expensive, and they can't maintain a small business without it."
Among the locations where the company buys beans are some unusual ones, including East Timor and Papua New Guinea. The company also helps with a revolving loan fund to dig wells in Ethiopia, and is a partner in Leon, Nicaragua, in a cafe owned and operated by a prosthetics clinic that gives free limbs and therapy to land mine victims and the poor.
At Deansbeans.com, the company offers sampler gift boxes that include the book "Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee," written by founder Dean Cycon.
Handbags and other accessories made of recycled aluminum pull tabs from cans may not be for everyone, but Escama Studio in San Francisco connects their customers with women's collectives in Brazil where their products are made.
Each item comes with a tag introducing the creator in Brasilia. The company's website, Escamastudio.com, offers a place where the recipient can write a message to the gift's creator. Escama translates the messages into Portuguese and sends them on.
Some of the Escama looks incorporate a traditional crochet technique into contemporary Western designs. In addition, the company funds computer literacy programs for those interested among the more than 100 women it works with.
"It's kind of a cool example of how Fair Trade organizations are trying to innovate in order to support artisans," Bowers said.
Giftier items include the small Smart Bag, with a fabric liner and detachable cross-body strap, and the Shaggy Bag, a "wristlette" with long fringe in black or silver.
We've all seen tote bags made of recyclables. The non-profit Nomi Network, operating in Cambodia, does the same thing using colorful, graphic fish-feed and rice bags made by women and girls who are victims of human sex trafficking or are vulnerable to falling prey.
The Manhattan-based Nomi Network, named for a victim whom co-founder Diana Mao once met, partners with rehabilitation homes and other organizations in Cambodia to train and educate the women who sew the bags. The company also works with trafficking victims in India.
In addition to totes and wallets, Nomi sells a canvas bag with the slogan, "Buy Her Bag, Not Her Body."
Key to the partnerships Nomi has in Cambodia is providing sustainable employment within the emotional support structure the traumatized women rely on, Bowers said. The company also helps connect them with training in other career fields.
Nomi's products are available at Nominetwork.org.
Have you ever tossed your iPhone in a mug to amplify the sound? A Fair Trade seller called Hope at Gottalottahope.com offers the Boozik to do just that.
It's an all-natural bamboo port for the iPhone 4 and 4s. The 9-inch-long Boozik, with a circumference of 6 inches, is cordless, battery free and comes with a cotton carry case.
The Boozik, made by village co-ops in Thailand, is lightweight, oven-dried and treated with water-based lacquer.
The organization was founded by Gina and Greg Hope and specializes in a range of products from Thailand, where they have worked with craftspeople for 15 years. Videos of the work are on the website, offering a glimpse of their incense makers in Nepal and screen printers in Thailand.
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