In recent decades, the concept of fair trade has grown in popularity as merchants and consumers alike make more conscientious decisions about how and where products are sourced. At its most basic level, fair trade is about forging business relationships between companies in developed nations and producers in developing parts of the globe. As the term suggests, producers are paid a fair price for the goods they sell to the business. Across the Madison area, a number of businesses sell goods and services around some or all of the principles of fair trade.
Since opening its doors, Art Gecko has been selling a variety of products to Madisonians made from suppliers in developing countries. Among them: clothing, décor, furniture, holistic goods, and jewelry. The retailer, which has two Madison locations, has used the phrase “conscientious commerce” to describe its mission.
Marcel Colbert, co-owner of Art Gecko, says most of the shop’s product line is sourced from India and Southeast Asia. Other locales, including Mexico, are also in the mix. “We skip the middle man,” Marcel says of Art Gecko’s business model. “We put a fair market price on our products, and we’re aware of [our suppliers’] working conditions.”
Art Gecko began as a concept plan in 1994. After working through logistics and securing suppliers, the doors officially opened in the community in 1997. “The business started growing almost immediately,” Marcel says.
A core principle is to forge relationships with suppliers. “We’ve known a lot of the sources for a number of years. There’s a very personal relationship. We believe in face-to-face contact.”
Whenever possible, visits to the suppliers’ countries and work places are a part of the business plan. The immersion process includes getting to know the region and country, paying respect to cultural awareness, and learning about the unique circumstances in each country.
Back home, feedback from local customers also plays a pivotal part in deciding what is stocked within the stores. Customer feedback, including desired products, is relayed to suppliers in the hopes of bridging relations between Madison and other parts of the planet. In describing this two-way process, Marcel says, “We’re trying to make the world a smaller place.”
Just Coffee Cooperative
Since its founding in 2002, Just Coffee Cooperative has been forging relationships with coffee farmers in Latin American countries and other areas of the globe. The seeds for the Madison-based company’s origins were planted through a relationship with Zapatista coffee farmers in Chiapas, Mexico.
Just Coffee has more than 30 people within its organization and has a highly caffeinated mission statement. Co-founder Matt Earley, a native of Kentucky who earned his master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says, “We really believe in the democratic organization of co-ops.”
The organization functions largely as a wholesaler, though it maintains a small retail function with pop-up coffee carts at assorted events throughout the area. Just Coffee is available at a number of local restaurants and grocery co-ops in addition to a selection of national grocery chains.
While coffee is a part of the business, it’s just one piece of a much larger mission-minded puzzle. From the onset, Matt and others within Just Coffee work to ensure farmers are receiving a fair, livable wage for the caffeinated crop they cultivate and bring to Madison. “It’s a way of making sure farmers are paid a better wage for the work they do,” Matt says of the first principle in their broader mission statement. “But that’s really just scratching the surface.”
As deeper relationships are forged between the supplier and Just Coffee, resources are offered to help farmers diversify the crops they are growing beyond coffee. Being kind to the planet is another key component of Just Coffee’s circular goal in enriching the globe. “Environmental sustainability has become a much bigger piece of this,” Matt says. “We want to make sure we’re working with farmers who are making sound ecological practices.”
Just Coffee has attained Certified B Corporation status, meaning it has met a prescribed set of high standards of verified social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. “We’re really excited about that certification,” Matt says. “It’s going to play a critical part for us as we move ahead.”
Upshift Swap Shop
The dire impact textile waste is having on the planet from an ecological perspective has become more well known in recent times. Lindsay Leno, owner of Upshift Swap Shop, is hoping to do her part in curtailing textile waste with a unique business model that emphasizes ecological responsibility from a global perspective.
Lindsay, whose professional background includes work as a fashion designer, noticed early on the industry was built around a constantly changing selection of wardrobe pieces for women. While the metamorphosis of selections from season to season and year to year is nothing new, Lindsay says she was growing concerned about the amount of textile waste piling up.
Whether it’s in the United States or another country, the cost of manufacturing clothing has an impact on the planet and its resources. Case in point: 1,800 gallons of water are consumed, on average, to manufacture one pair of jeans.
As Lindsay learned more about the impact of textile waste and the constant churn of new clothing pieces, she decided to put her concerns into action by hosting a clothing swap meet event one evening. The successful pilot project eventually resulted in Upshift Swap Shop, which opened in fall 2013. “It cuts down on waste,” Lindsay says of swapping clothing pieces that are in good condition but no longer part of the original owner’s desired wardrobe. “We’re very, very conscious about some of the wastefulness in the fashion industry. We’re trying to make a difference.”
At the moment, Upshift Swap Shop’s area of focus is for women, but eventually Lindsay anticipates expanding the service to men, children, and a specialty program tailored around maternity apparel.
Customers have several options available in store and online to swap out unwanted clothing for new pieces. “We’re trying to sidestep fast fashion so that it’s a much more sustainable business model,” Lindsay says.
Fair trade, as a concept, has been growing in popularity in recent decades and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Business owners across the Madison area are committed to working with global suppliers to ensure they receive equitable compensation for the goods and services they provide.
Dave Fidlin is a freelance writer who has a special affinity for Madison. Dave’s career spans nearly 20 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn something new each day through his professional pursuits.
1725 Monroe Street
Madison, WI 53711
510 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
Just Coffee Cooperative
3701 Orin Road
Madison, WI 53704
Upshift Swap Shop
836 E. Johnson Street
Madison, WI 53703