5 Tips To a Successful Fair Trade Business. Hint: It’s Not The Design.

Uganda basket weaving process

Fair Trade goods from all across the globe play a critical role in the quality of our lives. Whether it’s the coffee we consume in the morning or the clothes we wear, Fair Trade is everywhere and conscious consumers place a significant value on participating in ethical consumption. Fair Trade is one way of doing that. And if you’ve ever thought about the inner workings of the businesses behind Fair Trade brands—or thought about setting one up yourself—there’s something you should know about the core of any successful Fair Trade enterprise. It has a lot to do with the design and the product itself (obviously), but having expert knowledge of the country or regions where they operate and are produced is of equal importance. Below are five key areas, through the lens of my work with Fair Trade artisans in Uganda, that anyone who values Fair Trade—as a consumer or business owner—should know and practice.

1. Know the local context—geopolitical and otherwise.

Politics can impact the opportunities and challenges faced by a Fair Trade company far away from the production and partner country. That is the nature of globalization and with it comes the responsibility of being a good global citizen. The more you know about the politics that affect the everyday lives of your partners on the ground, the easier you will be able to adapt your operations accordingly. For example, because I had been following the January 2021 presidential elections for months—and quite frankly, years—leading up to it, I could plan productions and shipments around anticipated disruptions. The government shut down the internet on January 13, as it had done at points during campaign season. Being acutely aware of the government’s tendency to disrupt communications with the outside, my team and I were ready. After about one week, government authorities partially restored the internet—and we were back to business.

2. Be familiar with the availability of natural resources

Most, if not all, Fair Trade goods are manufactured from natural resources. Sometimes, they are a natural resource entirely (like coffee beans). Other times, the materials needed to make the finished product depend entirely on these natural resources. Climate change has upended the predictability of weather patterns that these natural resources depend on. For example, our basket collections are made from raffia and sisal grasses that, once dyed, require uninterrupted and hours-long sun-drying. Uganda has experienced abnormally wet and cool seasons that had been historically hot and dry. This disruption, which impacts livelihoods from crafts to agriculture, can delay the production process and also needs to be factored into work plans and scheduling.

Uganda basket weaving proces

3. Be prepared to become a microlender

2020 was a year of many firsts for my business and businesses all over the world, Fair Trade and non. Most Fair Trade-producing countries are low- and middle-income, meaning that when collective disaster strikes, there is no robust formal economic safety net to pick up the pieces. Many families and communities rely on each other and not the government for assistance. When one of my partner artisans and key players was short of cash to purchase raw materials four months into the pandemic (and four months into Uganda’s complete national lockdown), I found myself in a position where I was lending money to keep her side of the business afloat. But even though the nature of our economic and social safety nets are very different, our success is interdependent. When my artisans do well, I do well, and vice versa. So this lack of access to capital (albeit modest for me), had the potential to threaten our entire business model and respective livelihoods. And for the first time, I unofficially became a microfinance lender.

4. Double—and triple!—check your measurements

Only three countries in the entire world—including the U.S.—officially use the Imperial system of measurement (i.e., inches, feet, etc.), so chances are if you are U.S.-based, you are working across units of measure. This is why it is imperative when sending specifications to production partners to verify the measurements in the destination country, and also check in on a production sample early on. I learned this the hard way when producing 20 inch-by-20 inch napkins that were produced in centimeters instead. All 200 of them!

5. Lost in translation. Communicating with your team abroad.

The past year has afforded the world myriad digital communications tools. But all tools are not created equally! Depending on which languages your partners speak, and their levels of proficiency in them, some ways of communicating are more efficient than others. So my advice: lean into them all! In my case, that means sending a lot of pictures. WhatsApp has been my go-to when sending feedback and ideas to partners in Uganda  (which is Anglophone), and also recently to Niger (which is Francophone) while working on a textile project. Some of my artisans are also not comfortable writing “standard” English, so voice notes are much more efficient and easy at times. Employing a combination of voice, visual, and even video depending on the tasks and who is on the receiving end will greatly reduce the headaches that come along with communication breakdowns.

All of these tips should work in tandem with the product or design component of your Fair Trade business plan. These businesses are often established in “the West”, and operating in partnership with less economically vibrant countries. Given the nature of this dynamic, there are certain downfalls that can easily be avoided by self-educating. If you can spend large amounts of time in the country, that is ideal. If not, do go out of your way to foster those connections. While I rely on the news alerts for some of my information, the day-to-day updates and contextual insights I get about Uganda really come from those people with who I have been cultivating relationships over many years. So while digital tools facilitate running a contextually-informed Fair Trade business, the basis really starts with the relationships you build and nurture in-country and on-the-ground, while understanding and respecting cultural nuances.

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