Perfect Imperfection: Gifts with conscience

by Kimberly Leung
As published in the Summer / Fall 2016 Fair Trade Magazine 
Canada's Voice for Social Sustainability

GIFT GIVING IS BIG BUSINESS. From new clothing to sweet treats, little trinkets to big-ticket electronics, special occasions are often marked with an exchange of gifts, a practice that's becoming increasingly commercial. According to Statistics Canada, the total value of toys, games, and hobby supplies purchased during the holiday season in 2014 was in excess of $416 million. The figure jumps to over $705 million once other popular gifts are included, like jewellery, watches, cosmetics, and perfume. It's no question that the act of exchanging gifts makes a huge economic impact, but it's also an area with significant potential to create beneficial change. 

While mass-produced items are sold at low prices, there's often a human cost involved with these widely available, conventionally sourced goods, a cost that's not always obvious to the buyer. Hiding behind the price tag could be a product made under deplorable conditions. Ryan Jacobs, CEO of Ten Thousand Villages Canada, puts it in stark terms. “Global trade is largely faceless and nameless. You know that people were involved in making every item you own.

But how often do you think about the circumstances under which these items were made? How often do you think about the opportunities available to makers? These makers deserve to be treated humanely and fairly.”

Maasai artisans craft beaded jewellery outside Moshi, Tanzania.

Purchasing fair trade alternatives can help address this issue. As the oldest fair trade organization in North America and a member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), Ten Thousand Villages ensures that its products are sourced and made in a way that adheres to fair trade principles. It conducts a bi-annual self-assessment to review its operations in accordance to WFTO guidelines and communicates with artisan groups and other fair trade retailers to gather additional details on local operations.  Jacobs has travelled to Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Colombia to personally connect with some of the people that Ten Thousand Villages works with. He has found talented, ambitious, and intelligent artisans, hampered by the lack of opportunities available to them. Working in over 25 countries, Ten Thousand Villages pays artisans fair prices and, alongside its partners, provides health services, work training, and free meals. This enables artisans to preserve their traditional ways of life while earning a sustainable income.

Amalia, leader of a women's co-op, wears a traditional Shipibo headdress.

Gifts with stories

Fair trade gifts have the advantage of being one of a kind. A far cry from the factory-produced items frequently found on store shelves, handcrafted goods have distinctive and beautiful variations. As Robert McKinnon likes to say, the items are made to “perfect imperfection.” In 2007, McKinnon and his family travelled to Pucallpa, Peru, to visit the two girls the family had sponsored to attend school. What they found was a town without basic healthcare, access to education, and safely constructed homes for many of its people. The experience moved them to action. He and his wife Brigitte started the Pure Art Foundation soon after their eye-opening family trip, with the purpose of undertaking humanitarian projects for this off-the-grid town. But they also understood that self-sufficiency was key to creating lasting change in this community. Finding talented artisans among the indigenous people of Pucallpa, the McKinnons commissioned an order and returned to Canada with beaded and line to include jewellery made by the Maasai people, to support the clinic’s cervical cancer screening program.
A member of the North American Fair Trade Federation (FTF), the Pure Art Boutique has undergone a strict screening process to demonstrate its 100 percent commitment to ethical trade. By partnering with other fair trade channels, the boutique has expanded its that pay marginalized people a fair wage. An increase in demand for fair trade goods could make a serious impact and create a wave of change that might one day set a new, more humane standard for how conventional goods are produced. 
Ethical options exist for many popular gifts. For your next special occasion, whether it's a wedding, birthday, or the holidays, try skipping the trip to the local hand-stitched items to sell at fair trade value. The proceeds from their shop, the Pure Art Boutique, were used to support their foundation's initiatives in Peru, which now include building safe homes, funding school support programs, and providing vocational training. Later on, a chance encounter with a friend with ties to a rural medical clinic in Tanzania alerted them to the challenges of administering care in remote regions. In response, they expanded their product selection to include items made in Tibet, the Philippines, and Brazil, to name a few. Each piece tells a different story, increasing awareness and exposing customers to artisan groups from all over the world.

For this Shipibo artisan, the intricate geometric patterns represent how she sees the creation of the universe.

Gifts that spur change:

Purchasing from stores offering fair trade and socially responsible items diverts money from conventional profit-maximizing businesses to agreements shopping mall. Instead, devote some time to looking for thoughtful presents that are made and procured without exploitation. When you choose a fair trade gift, you are giving something that benefits both the receiver and those who produced the item.

Shipibo artisans from villages along the Ucayali River, Peru, work with Pure Art to create high-quality hand-embroidered textiles.

Kimberly Leung is a social services coordinator and freelance writer based in Toronto. She moonlights as a volunteer for several health and community non-profits.

July 21, 2016 — Brigitte McKinnon