by Phoebe Droz
“When people shop at big box stores,” said Kim Harmson, owner of Kizuri, a store that sells fair trade, earth friendly and local products in Spokane, “they don’t often think of where their money is going.” But perhaps even those who are buying fair trade products are becoming disassociated with the causes they are supporting because buying fair trade has become such a trend.
Walking through the local Spokane store, whose warm red wall was covered in native art from all over the world, Harmson explained fair trade, “it is more than just a fair wage to the producer,” she remarked, “it is sustainable development to the business while respecting cultural identity of the producer.”
She led the way through her little store, stopping often to explain popular items with amazing backstories. She lingered for a moment at some small beaded necklaces, and picked two up and loving wrapped them around her left wrist. Out of all of the items in the store, the wicker baskets made by the woman of Ghana, some woven rugs and textiles made in Nepal, she chose these small beads to talk about the most.
She called the little necklaces “Zulugrass” and began to explain their story. It was the story not only of people coming in to help a community in need, but also that community becoming an active part of solving their own problem. Between the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania the Massai people live. However, in 2001 a terrible drought left devastated their pasture land. In response, the men drove the few remaining cattle hundreds of miles away to find water and better grazing. This left the women behind with children and no way to support themselves.
However, it was at this point that Philip and Katy Leaky stepped in. They designed products that utilized the sustainable resources around them as well as the beading skills of the Massai women. “The women are able to come, and grab packages of the materials and create necklaces on their own terms in their own space,” said Kim Harmson. There are no factories there.
As Harmson’s story began to come to a close she explained the hard parts of working with the cultures. “The Leakys wanted to be able to pay the women directly,” however, most African cultures are patriarchal. “They began to pay the women directly,” but because the men were refusing the let it happen they put the business on hold for a while, so that they could figure out logistically how they could respect the culture and give the women what they were due. Days later the Leakys were returning to the Massai area by Jeep, and saw the Massai men standing in the road, they had changed their minds, they wanted the Leakys to pay the women directly.
Buying fair trade is becoming easier and easier, and although the name suggests that the money is going to a worthy organization, is it enough to simply buy fair trade products, or is there a social responsibility to travel back to those places and give those woman dying beads and stringing them on elastic a respectful nod?