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Fair trade principles. We at Journey Home are passionate about the issues surrounding fair trade. Yet as our business grows and expands, we are discovering that sometimes it's not as straight forward as is hoped.

Promoting fair trade, both professionally and personally, seems like it would be simple, right? Head to the store or wholesale supplier, only buy those items which are certified, and voila! The world is a better place. 

But it gets tricky. And sometimes self-defeating. Here's some examples:

As a business, we are absolutely committed to paying our artisans a living wage. But as we've discovered, the prices we charge for products are more than other US manufacturing initiatives, in part because of the economies of scale, but also owing to our commitment to higher wages.

So then we turn to fair trade marketplaces. We can sell through there, right? Um, not so fast. Again, we're at a disadvantage. We're now competing with other organizations who also pay living wages...in India. In Cambodia. In Vietnam. Place where the cost of living and the average wage is much lower than the US. This means that again, our product is priced too high to compete. And this isn't sour grapes. We LOVE these third world initiatives and think they're incredibly important. We've just realized that our products aren't always a good match where we thought they'd be. 

Second problem: sourcing raw materials. So while we'd love to buy zippers, clasps, buttons, etc from only certified non-sweatshops, this simply isn't possible. Many, many raw materials come from overseas, from industries who either haven't or can't do such certification. (As a side note, when buying kisslock clasps for our tribal clutches, we spent many long hours trying to find an ethical supplier and finally gave up. And it made us wonder if possibly 3D printing could tackle some of these items. Business suggestion, if you have the time and ability!)

The next issue with the raw materials is cost. When we're already struggling to compete because of wages, raising our prices even more to accommodate expensive materials further hampers business and keeps our ladies from earning anything at all! 

What's the answer to all this? It's something we spend lots of time pondering and would love to engage with other small producers about. If you've got thoughts or ideas, PLEASE share them in the comments or email info (at) journeyhomecrafts (dot) com.

Here's some of the ways we're seeking to tackle these issues:

  • Innovation is one key. We need to look for ways to make things differently. This takes time, delays profitability, but eventually can pay off. The problem is that we can't just Google, "awesome new idea" and have it bring anything up. Reading, research, talking to others. It's just what has to be done. 
  • Upcycling is another way to cut costs and promote our mission. By reusing textiles whenever possible, this allows us to cut costs and produce in a more sustainable way. Several of our products, including the burlap tote bags and our denim clutches are made, in part, from upcycled textiles and materials. 
  • New markets - When starting a venture that grows out of a class, it's easy to just start selling items that are made without having any real plan or target market. We've done that, were mildly successful, but then discovered that this simply isn't sustainable way to keep going. So we're pivoting and creating a more defined focus for who our customer is and how we make products that serve them. Sounds sort of like a business plan, right? Guess they're important after all!
  • Perseverance - growth, earning, expansion. It just takes time and we've realized that perseverance is an important component! Rome wasn't built overnight, as the saying goes, and neither do bootstrapped businesses suddenly take off. There's a lot of sweat equity that has to be invested before the problems we're trying to tackle can get solved. 

So what are your thoughts? Are you involved in fair trade ventures and/or manufacturing in the United States? What advice would you have? Share in the comments section, or send us a message at the above email address. 

Shopping illustration by Elliot Stokes, used under a Creative Commons license.

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