A Box Full of Joy

Sometimes it seems like you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a new subscription box brand. (Is this an expression other people use or is my family just morbid?) I’m usually not that into the subscription box format because I’m so particular about the ethics of the products and companies I support. However, I recently connected with Julie Overby, the co-founder of bonJOY, a brand that bills itself as a “little box of good.” I was excited to learn that their product sourcing criteria are as stringent as mine—and in fact go further by seeking out brands that specifically support women and combat human trafficking. I was immediately enamored with the company’s mission and Julie’s infectiously joyful spirit, so I asked her to share some background about bonJOY and what makes it different from other boxes.

Past bonJOY boxes

Past bonJOY boxes

Fair for All: Subscription boxes are a big trend right now. What’s the appeal?

Julie Overby: I think it’s the surprise factor! You choose a subscription box brand that’s a fit with your lifestyle, and leave it to them to curate a selection of items you might never otherwise discover and voila, it arrives on your doorstep. It’s a bit of Christmas morning all throughout the year!

Why did you start bonJOY?

Esther & I met while volunteering at a safe house for trafficking survivors, and eventually started discovering and sending each other these products we found from brands that had a heart for survivors too. We found that the subscription box concept worked beautifully as a way of sharing our finds with the world and building support for these amazing brands and the organizations they work with. In light of a such a dark and evil wrong (trafficking) in the world, we wanted to highlight the joy and restoration that these anti-trafficking organizations are making possible for women who have survived such a horrific thing.

What makes bonJOY different from other subscription boxes?

The very specific cause focus. There are other (wonderful!) fair trade and cause-related boxes out there, but to my knowledge, we’re the only one that focuses specifically on a) brands making a positive impact for women, b) disadvantaged or at-risk women, and c) trafficking-specific causes. We don’t promote an amazing value because we’re actually paying our partners their full wholesale rates for their products  we want to make sure each box creates the maximum impact. (Many other boxes get products for free or at a greatly reduced cost.) More things you might not guess about us here!

Why the focus on human trafficking?

It’s something both of us are passionate about, but we’re not lawyers, doctors, or ex-SEALs, so we’re not out there busting down doors and saving these girls. It’s kind of beautiful how it worked out, but we’re able to take our abilities and interests and support the people doing just that through building business for these brands. As awareness about the issue grows (and it’s grown a LOT in the past five years), people are looking more and more for ways that they can respond and join in the fight, and we think this is one way to do just that. Plus, I’m crazy about being able to tell a story with my purchases  I love having things in my home and closet that I can’t help but talk about. Some of the pieces we feature are even signed by the women who made them, which I think is so awe-inspiring.

bonjoy-box-label

What criteria do products have to meet to be included in a bonJOY box?

They’ve got to be made ethically, number one. We also want them to be creating some kind of positive impact, whether that’s a donation to an organization somewhere or creating employment for survivors trying to get back on their feet. For consumable products like beauty and candles, that sort of thing, we also do the research to make sure ingredients are pure and good for you and the earth. Bonus points when a product is eco-friendly.

Tell me about your joy philosophy. (I’m kind of in love with it.)

We think of joy as a weapon against the darkness. When these survivors light up the world by smiling with abandon… wow. Talk about inspiration. As humans and consumers, we want to fight for pervasive joy  in the way we live and interact, in the products we use, in the causes we support. It’s simple, but it can be a challenge. Joy is easy to chase though  it doesn’t lie. :-) You can read more about our perspective and our core values in this blog post.

What’s your favorite item that has been included in a bonJOY box?

Oh boy, so many! Soap from the Hope Soap Project (loooove their bars), facial wipes from Rooted Beauty (so perfect for travelling and so affordable — actually, Target just picked them up!), and this simple yet gorgeous necklace from Purpose Jewelry (hand-signed by a survivor and everyday kind of wearable). You can see everything we’ve featured before here.

What’s next for bonJOY?

Well, we just launched a new subscription option, so instead of just shipping quarterly like we did last year, we’ve added a monthly box on top of that. It’s $35/month + free shipping, and I think it’s a great deal if you love discovery and want to join us in creating consistent impact. We’re also partnering with four key anti-trafficking organizations this year to give $1 from each box and inviting subscribers to add a donation on top of that. A21 is our first Give-Back Partner. Really excited about that one and looking forward to seeing the kind of impact we can make together. Beyond that, we’re looking at some really exciting collaborations and themed boxes later in the year, so stay tuned! We’ve got lots of ideas, just need the time and womanpower to bring them to life. :-)

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If you decide to order a box of ethical awesomeness from bonJOY, use coupon code FAIRFORALL to get $2 off.

Find out more about bonJOY at bonjoybox.com or on social media; they’re @bonjoybox on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Product Review: Fair Trade Crossbody Purse

When I attended the Fair Trade Federation conference back in the spring of 2014, one of the booths that caught my attention was Manos Zapotecas. Their bags are a gorgeous combination of native textiles and leather and immediately made me want to go on a very sophisticated hike over desert steppes. I walked past their booth again and again just to ogle them.

Recently I got in touch with Hannah Aronowitz of Manos Zapotecas to learn more about the process of making their beautiful bags, and she also lent me their Luisa crossbody purse to review.

Coral and beige fair trade crossbody purse

The Luisa purse in Adobe & Earth

Fair for All: Describe the process of making a Manos Zapotecas bag.

Hannah Aronowitz: All Manos Zapotecas bags are handmade according to time-honored traditions by Zapotec weavers in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Our weavers are also the designers of the beautiful patterns found on all of our bags. Many are the traditional Zapotec designs while others are modern interpretations of their tribal patterns or even abstract expressions. Our Style Coordinator works closely with the weavers to discuss colors for seasonal lines and each designer gets a chance to draw up their designs on paper, and then produce a sample. We offer feedback throughout the design process and choose the best samples to be made into Manos Zapotecas bags.

Manos Zapotecas weavers use bi-peddle treadle looms and preparing the loom to weave is an intensive process unto itself. A completed woven piece is called a tapete, or woolen tapestry. Most traditionally used as rugs, Manos Zapotecas utilizes these small tapetes to make into bags.

The next step is to sew the tapetes into the shape of the bag it will become. It is then sent to a dedicated leatherworker in a nearby town who adds the leather handles and base, siding or fringe, depending on the model. The bag is returned to the weaver so they can sew in the zipper and lining and make sure the bag is in perfect condition to ship out.

This video goes through this process as explained by two of our weavers.

Julia wearing fair trade crossbody purse

How did Manos Zapotecas get connected with the artisans who produce the bags? Why did you choose to work in the Zapotec community specifically?

In 2009, Manos Zapotecas founder Shelly Tennyson was volunteering with a microfinance non-profit in the small Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. She was offering business classes to the female loan recipients, many of who were weavers. Shelley realized that no matter how exquisite the product, or how savvy their business skills, without buyers, these hardworking and skilled artisans were not being able to support themselves or their families adequately.

Three years later, Manos Zapotecas was borne out of a belief that commerce can, and should, change lives for the better. What began as a wild idea to sell Zapotec bags globally, in a village where most of the women hadn’t even left the state, has grown into a fair trade fashion brand that is run by a team of five women in the US and supports over 50 weavers in Oaxaca. The purpose of Manos Zapotecas is to perpetuate the beautiful traditions and improve the lives of the Zapotec artisans by connecting them with socially conscious consumers around the globe.

Julia wearing fair trade crossbody purse

Cropped to eliminate major RBF in this photo

Can you describe the natural dyes that are used in some of the bags?

Some weaving families still use natural dyes, the knowledge of which is passed down from generation to generation. These dyes are concocted from a variety of plant, animal and mineral sources, such as nuts and flowers, cochineal bugs and indigo. Other families prefer the more vivid colors produced by aniline dyes. For either method, the yarn is boiled with the dye, a fixative (such as lime juice) is added and then the skeins of colored yarn are hung to dry in the sun.

Where does the wool for the bags come from, and where are the metal and leather components of the bags produced? Do these producers follow humane and sustainable practices?

The 100% sheep’s wool comes from Puebla, Mexico, the leather from Leon, Mexico and the hardware from Mexico City. Because we don’t have the capability to visit these sources at the moment we don’t want to make any claims in terms of sustainability. Our weavers and tanners have built strong relationships with their suppliers, some have been working together for the last 30 years. We at MZ place high value on those current relationships and for now the artisans continue to source their own supplies.

I love that the meanings behind the traditional Zapotec designs are on the Manos Zapotecas website. Which pattern is your favorite and why?

Grecas pattern

Grecas pattern

This pattern, called grecas, mimics the mosaic fretwork that is found spectacularly preserved at the ancient Zapotec religious center of Mitla. This geometric spiral represents the life cycle, according to the Zapotec worldview. Each step represents a stage of life, beginning at birth, moving on through youth, maturity and then decay, followed by the other world. It is a powerful symbol that is often repeated in MZ bags.

Is Manos Zapotecas a member of any fair trade organizations?

Yes! We are a proud member of the Fair Trade Federation, which means that we abide by a set of guiding principles which ensures that the artisans are getting the fair pay, support and safe work conditions they deserve. Making these kinds of business decisions comes second nature to a company that values the humans behind the products higher than the profits themselves. We see business as a means to improve lives, not just to line pockets.

What’s next for Manos Zapotecas?

We are very excited to launch our Fall 2015 Collection this September, which is comprised of about 25 new bags in a perfect fall palette. Also, we are looking forward to adding men’s products to our line in the coming year.

Tag on fair trade crossbody purse with name of artisan

My favorite thing about this purse was the hand-signed tag from the artisan who produced it. After watching videos about the process on the Manos Zapotecas website, I was inspired by the craft and creativity of the weavers and I’m so glad they are able to preserve their tradition. Scrolling through their online store is like perusing a gallery of abstract art.

The bag is a great size for everyday and has a convenient adjustable strap. It’s biggest downside is that there’s only one interior pocket. The lining could also be made of sturdier fabric to help the pocket hold its shape.

While I like the Adobe & Earth pattern on the bag I tried, if I was going to order a bag to keep permanently, I would choose one of the more colorful made-to-order designs like the Sunburst Sky or Dark Arrows. In my dream world I would also have the Mitla duffel bag.

Thanks to Hannah for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the Manos Zapotecas process!

Disclosure: Manos Zapotecas temporarily lent me the Luisa purse to review. All opinions are my own.

Local Chocolate Fave Becomes Fairtrade Certified

The Indianapolis fair trade revelations keep coming! Last summer I learned about Liz Alig, and a few weeks ago I learned that Indianapolis-based Endangered Species Chocolate (ESC) has just been certified by Fairtrade International, making it the first first American-made chocolate using fully traceable Fairtrade cocoa from West Africa.

I’m excited that an Indianapolis company is demonstrating major leadership in fair trade certification. ESC previously claimed on its packaging that it followed ethical sourcing practices, but I tend to be skeptical of ethical claims that aren’t backed by a fair trade certification. Now that they are certified with Fairtrade International, I feel much more confident purchasing their products (which I plan to do on the regular now, because omgsooooogood).

Three chocolate bars from Endangered Species Chocolate

To share the local love and get the inside story on their move to fair trade certification, I spoke to Whitney Bembenick, ESC’s research and development manager.

Fair for All: Why was becoming Fairtrade certified important to ESC?

Whitney Bembenick: It is Endangered Species Chocolate’s mission to have a positive impact on species, habitat and humanity through the work that it does to make premium, ethically traded, shade grown, all natural chocolate. We believe that we carry an important responsibility to help the fair trade community grow, and that joining forces with Fairtrade International will allow us to continue to expand our work.

How will the certification improve the lives of the cocoa producers you work with?

In addition to paying a fair price, which is set by the Fairtrade Standard and Pricing Unit, we pay an additional Fairtrade Premium of $200 per tonne of cocoa purchased from our farmers in West Africa.  The farmers are then responsible for democratically determining how this money will be spent to enrich the lives of their community.  A few examples of how this money may be used are: fresh water sourcing, community buildings, education for both children and farmers, and investment in improvement of their agricultural tools/systems.

ESC was already following its own ethical sourcing practices. Will the certification change how you do things?

The core of what we have been doing, and what we will continue to do, will not change.  We will continue to ethically source our cocoa from the same farmers we have partnered with in West Africa for years to come, making a positive impact on species, habitat and humanity. However, we now have Fairtrade certified sugar, vanilla and other ingredients that have Fairtrade standards in each of our chocolate bars. We are also looking forward to working with the people at Fairtrade International (America) to develop impact reports which will outline how the work we are doing is impacting farmer communities.

Dark chocolate with blackberry sage chocolate bar

Why did you choose the Fairtrade International certification over other fair trade certifications (Fair Trade USA, IMO Fair for Life, etc.)?

Fairtrade International is the longest standing, most globally recognized fair trade certification. Over 6 in 10 people recognize the logo, and of those people, 9 in 10 trust it. We have confidence in the rigor and transparency of a fair trade organization with that much recognition.

Are all of ESC’s products Fairtrade certified?

Yes! Look for the seal on all of our products as they become available on shelf.

Part of ESC’s mission is to promote conservation and protect animals. Can you briefly describe the projects you have going on right now in that arena?

In the past three years, we have been able to donate over $1 million to our 10% partners, African Wildlife Foundation and Xerces Society. In addition, we have partnered with several non-profits that are species-related to raise awareness for their cause on the inside of our wrappers. For instance, our Lavender Mint Crème Filled Chocolate Bar features the Monk Seal Foundation and its work to protect the Hawaiian Monk Seal. We also have “pop up” contests sporadically throughout the year on Facebook that both raise awareness and often times give money to various species-driven non-profits.

Where can people buy Endangered Species Chocolate?

The options are endless!  National and local natural grocers have a great selection of our chocolate bars. Many other conventional grocers carry us too, usually in their natural marketplace. Readers can go to www.chocolatebar.com for a product finder, or click on the bar they would like to purchase, and they will be taken to our Amazon marketplace to have yummy chocolate delivered right to their door.

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Thanks to Whitney for sharing the story of ESC’s fair trade certification! Of probable interest to chocolate-lovers: ESC also just recently released several varieties of “cocoa spread,” i.e. basically fair trade Nutella. *insert that emoji with hearts for eyes*

Is fair trade gaining traction with companies in your city? Have any of your favorite brands gone fair trade?

Behind the Scenes of Fair Trade Fashion with Liz Alig

Liz Alig hang tag on a green shirt

In an old farmhouse at an orchard east of Indianapolis is a hidden fashion design studio you’d never know was there. It’s the headquarters of Liz Alig, and a couple of weeks ago founder Elizabeth Roney invited me to visit the studio.

I had never been behind the scenes of any kind of fashion business, let alone a fair trade fashion company, so I came with tons of questions and left with a head full of knowledge (along with a bunch of food I bought at the adjacent country store).

Here are the biggest things I learned:

1. A small team can have a big impact

The first thing I was impressed to learn was that Liz Alig is only a two-person operation. Elizabeth, as designer and operations manager, designs the collections and handles the logistics of communicating with the fair trade producers. Liz Alig is focused on wholesale distribution through boutiques around the country, so Elizabeth has a part-time sales and marketing associate help with that end of things.

It was encouraging to see a small team make such a big impact. Through the work of just two people, Liz Alig provides opportunity to fair trade producers in several developing countries and offers conscious consumers an ethical and fashion-forward clothing option.

2. Design is a small part of the process

Elizabeth told me that the design part of being a fashion designer actually only takes up a fraction of her time. Liz Alig releases two collections a year, fall and spring, and each collection takes about two weeks to design. It takes another two weeks to create the patterns the producers will use to make the orders.

After creating the patterns, Elizabeth will make a sample of each piece and send it to the producer group, or more often, she will send the group the pattern and have them make the sample themselves with a sketch to guide them. “That way they understand more how the piece is assembled,” Elizabeth says.

The rest of Elizabeth’s time is spent working with the producer groups to make and receive the orders, which I learned has its own set of unique challenges.

Pile of fabric, sewing machine, spools of thread

Supplies in the design studio: excess fabric, a pattern library, a rainbow of thread colors and Elizabeth’s sewing machine

3. Cultural miscommunication is a common occurrence

Liz Alig works with producer groups in Cambodia, India, Honduras, Haiti and more, and each group has different capabilities and resources. I asked about the language barrier, and Elizabeth said she frequently uses Google Translate to communicate with the different groups.

As well as speaking different languages, the producer groups also have different cultural ideas about what constitutes good fashion. Elizabeth said that many times she’s received a sample or shipment and been surprised by the colors used or the fit of the garments. One group used short zippers that didn’t work with how the garment was supposed to fit. Another group paired multiple bright colors together to make tops that were louder than what would be marketable in the boutiques where Liz Alig is stocked.

Quality can also vary depending on the producer group’s circumstances. The group Liz Alig works with in Haiti doesn’t have electricity, so they produce their garments using a foot-powered treadle sewing machine and by hand-sewing. “We want to give them more orders, but we need to get their quality up,” Elizabeth says.

I was heartened to hear this real story of the impact of fair trade relationships. A group without electricity would never be considered a viable option for fast fashion production, but by forming long-term relationships, fair trade offers this group in Haiti the opportunity to learn by doing, improve their skills and increase their capacity.

Close-up of screen printed design of illustrated people

Liz Alig recently introduced screen prints into their designs. Elizabeth’s designs are often inspired by motifs found in the producers’ culture, however this print, her favorite from the spring 2015 collection, was inspired by vintage fabric found at Goodwill.

4. Excess fabric is big business

Liz Alig makes several of their styles using factory excess fabric. I asked if factories are ever surprised when someone calls wanting their waste, and Elizabeth explained that the sale of excess fabric is actually a big industry. “People don’t realize how much waste there is in fabric production,” she said. Excess fabric can occur when the original purchaser orders too much, or if the color or design don’t match what the original purchaser wanted.

Liz Alig gets most of their factory excess fabric from El Salvador or Cambodia. The fabric is sold in warehouses or markets, sometimes in reams and sometimes just in wads. Elizabeth said that she tries to design garments using fabrics she knows will be abundant in the excess markets, such as gray jersey knit.

Rack of dresses, skirts and tops

Liz Alig produces small quantities of each garment, around 100-200 pieces, making each piece a truly unique investment. This is a sneak peek of their fall 2015 collection.

It was fascinating to learn the ins and outs of how a fair trade company actually conducts business, and to learn how clothing goes from a designer’s idea to a real garment hanging in your closet. Thanks to Elizabeth for letting me visit and for sharing her knowledge and the Liz Alig story!

Handkerchiefs: An Eco Throwback

Handkerchiefs: An Eco Throwback over photo of two hankies

Handkerchiefs have never really been a thing during my lifetime. My experience with them is pretty much limited to what I’ve seen in historical dramas and Looney Tunes, and my vague understanding of hankies is that they’re non-disposable Kleenex, which seems kind of icky.

However, as people (including me) look to reduce their use of disposable paper products, handkerchiefs are making a comeback. I’m completely in favor of hankies in terms of reducing waste, but given my recent perception of handkerchiefs as basically snot rags, I was skeptical of their practicality and hygiene.

I reached out to Marion Poirier, co-founder and CEO of Montreal-based handkerchief company TSHU, with my questions about how well handkerchiefs can really work on an everyday basis.

Fair for All: What are some of the ways to use a handkerchief?

Marion Poirier: There are many different ways to use a handkerchief and funnily enough, lots of them don’t include blowing or wiping one’s nose!

A handkerchief is a very useful accessory to carry on one at all times and can come in handy in various situations. For instance, there is nothing like a soft, absorbent cotton handkerchief to wipe the sweat off one’s brow after an energetic workout, a bike ride or simply to deal with the heat or excessive sweating due to anxiety.

It’s also a great fix for oily hands after digging into finger food or wiping your child’s cheeks after a snack. Bearded and mustachioed men also find our hankies quite useful after enjoying a beverage! Crying or emotion can also be dealt with in style. Wiping your screen or your glasses with a handkerchief is also appropriate. Some of our clients even groom their pets with the handkerchiefs. And, for practical reasons, there is nothing like a cotton handkerchief to really blow your nose when practicing outdoor winter sports – without ending up with little debris of wet paper-tissues in your pockets.

Teal, yellow and gray geometric patterned handkerchief

Are handkerchiefs a practical solution for people with serious nasal congestion, or are they only for those with a dainty nose drip?

Cotton handkerchiefs are definitely appropriate for real use! They are truly fantastic for people who suffer from seasonal allergies or severe colds as their noses are frequently irritated and their skin more sensitive due to excessive blowing. After all, hankies are way softer and more absorbent then regular paper tissues!

However one chooses to use their handkerchief is absolutely personal though. The idea is to try it and see what works for you! If germs are a concern for you, the same rules as using paper tissues apply: wash your hands often! And, for extra precaution, leave your handkerchief in our practical case (Casey) for hygiene and transport, wash both the handkerchief and case often and/or have a few hankies in stock as backup.

Personally, I can go through 5 or 6 two-ply hankies in a day when sick, or one every day or second day when healthy. I’ve seen people wash their hankies once a week though (or even less!) – so everything is a question of comfort and use!

How do you wash a handkerchief? If you use it to blow your nose, does it make your other laundry gross?

Caring for your handkerchief is extremely simple. Simply toss it in the machine with your laundry – cold water preferably, and lay flat or hang to dry. Bonus points for drying in the sun, as the sun naturally fades stains!

As per “contamination” with the rest of your laundry – again it’s a question of comfort. Most parents will agree that their loads have seen worse things than handkerchiefs…

Several handkerchiefs hanging on an outdoor clothesline

How do you handle carrying around a dirty or wet handkerchief all day if you happen to use it early in the day?

How many times you use one handkerchief is really up to you! There are several tricks to get the most out of your hanky. For instance, you can fold it where it’s been used and move on to another section, piece by piece. The surprising thing about cotton handkerchiefs is that it “magically” dries in your pocket. So, the folded part of the hanky you were using this morning may be dry by late afternoon, the water having evaporated! If it’s beyond re-using, you can also use our little case to store your dirty handkerchief. It’s always good to have a backup handkerchief, too. There’s an old saying that I like to quote: “Always carry two handkerchiefs: one for show and one for blow.”

What are the differences between a handkerchief, a pocket square and a cloth napkin?

A handkerchief is usually made out of cotton and is particularly useful when soft and absorbent. A pocket square is often made from more delicate materials such as silk and wool and boast a hand rolled edge, which makes them more decorative than practical. Cloth napkins are usually way larger in size than handkerchiefs or pocket squares and are sometimes made with linen, which is not as soft on the nose.

Assortment of colorful handkerchiefs

Do you carry multiple handkerchiefs, or is one usually enough?

Most people carry one or two (one for show, one for blow). I personally like to have at least one on me and I leave some everywhere for emergencies (the car, the office, my laptop case, in the pocket of the jacket I use to run, etc.).

Since starting to use handkerchiefs, how has your life improved?

In many ways! With three kids in the house, we waste considerably less. We’ve also converted to cloth napkins so we basically don’t use paper tissues or towels at all anymore.

Aside from the environmental impact, I’ve absolutely converted to the habit and don’t find the use of paper tissues to be agreeable any more. In comparison, they are way too thin & fragile and not as soft as our cotton handkerchiefs!

I’ve also found that having a TSHU on you is incredibly practical for every day life and use my handkerchiefs to deal with the unexpected frequently. I’m always proud to pull out a beautiful, colourful hanky to save a situation or politely refuse paper napkins at a deli when ordering a sandwich!

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Marion sent me two TSHU hankies to try out: the one-ply polka-dotted Henri and the two-ply organic Dwight. TSHU handkerchiefs are handmade in Montreal, and the company plants a tree for each handkerchief adopted (TSHU calls each purchase an adoption—cute!).

Two TSHU handkerchiefs in cardboard sleeve packaging

As a cloth napkin user, I like the idea of a pseudo-napkin I can take with me anywhere. And with the weather (hopefully) warming up soon, it will be nice to have something to wipe the sweat off my face with after a run or a particularly energetic swing dance. I plan to use the hankies for at least 30 days, then I’ll report back about the practical ins and outs.

Have you ever used a cloth handkerchief? What was your experience?

Disclaimer: TSHU provided me two free handkerchiefs to review in a future post.

Get to Know Las Casas, Guatemalan Fair Trade

Las Casas table at the Manthan International Market

This summer I attended the Manthan International Market in downtown Indianapolis with the intent of sampling tasty foods of the world. Imagine my excitement when there turned out to be several fair trade vendors there as well! I was especially excited to meet David Durica of Las Casas, a vendor I’d never heard of before. I learned that Las Casas is fairly new to the Indianapolis fair trade scene and focuses specifically on sharing the beautiful culture of Guatemala.

I invited David to share more about Las Casas and the work they are doing in Guatemala and in the local Indy area.

Fair for All: Tell us about how Las Casas started.
Las Casas: My wife, Jenny, and I lived in Guatemala for a year, and while there we developed a deep respect for Guatemala’s people and culture. Towards the end of our time, we started brainstorming ways to sustain our relationships and maintain our commitment to the people long-term. After experiencing the struggles and issues throughout Guatemala – which include: lack of education and jobs, malnutrition, and a tragic history of oppression – we began identifying the existing strengths and skills among the people. We saw that the artisans were doing amazing work but they needed access to outside markets and fair wages. The need for Fair Trade was identified by realizing that if people matter, then the way we trade should matter.

Guatemalan artisan with table of jewelry

Describe your mission.
As a social enterprise, we seek to display cultural beauty, pursue fairness, and advocate for truth and reconciliation. We believe Fair Trade is a reconciled way of living for us as consumers. We view Las Casas as both a journey and a destination, a means and an end. The journey aspect is tangible by supporting fair trade and advocating alongside the indigenous artisans. This part of the mission puts fair trade merchandise into the hands of consumers. The destination is why we take part in the journey, which involves an intangible mission to reconcile trade by valuing people over product. Altogether, we hope to build a bridge with artisans living in a completely different reality.

What is it about Guatemala that makes that country so special to you?
We’ve always been drawn to Guatemala ever since our first short-term missions trip there in 2007. The country is vibrant with rich, cultural traditions and indigenous Mayan people who inspire us with their work ethic, commitment to family, and generous hospitality. More so than we’d experienced elsewhere, the indigenous population strive to maintain their ancient way of life, including their art of back-strap weaving, which is such a testament to their values.

During our time living there in 2011, we couldn’t help but get to know local artisans. We had nothing but respect for the work that they do, and were impassioned to co-develop an avenue of support with them, their families, and their community. Thus, we started this Fair Trade venture.

Guatemalan artisan weaving

The product that caught my eye the most at your booth at the market was the Guatop shoes. They are completely rad. Can you tell us more about how the design of the Guatops came to be, how they are made, and where people can get them?
You can’t miss the GuaTops, right?! These shoes are made of authentic indigenous patterns from Mayan villages throughout Guatemala. The textiles are back-strap woven, then hand-stitched into a pre-cut pattern to form the shoe. The fabric is then complemented by genuine leather, which is sourced from the coast of Guatemala.

Pretty unique, right? But we’re actually still in development of our GuaTops. Everything we’ve offered thus far was beta testing and samples. Because of the handmade dynamic, it’s been difficult to offer GuaTops anywhere other than in person, which is mostly at events in the Indianapolis area. We post some pictures of the shoes online, but don’t actually sell them online yet. The best way to get a pair would be to email us your general size and we can send you some pictures of our available inventory that would be in your approximate range. Then we’d connect somewhere so you can try them on!

GuaTops shoe

What’s your favorite product that you offer, or a new product you are excited about?
Part of our mission is to support a variety of indigenous artisan groups. With that being said, the groups and individuals we’re supporting come from varying levels. Some are paralyzed by poverty, so our work with them focuses on product development, creating savings, and long-term vision to lift their families out of poverty. Other groups are well equipped and have quarterly development workshops on their own.

So based on that, our newest excitement comes from a grassroots cooperative in Nahuala (a very rural village). Previously they were only making raw fabrics, so they’re brand new to the world of finished goods. Exclusively for Las Casas, they’re now making Snap Bags. These handy textile pouches feature a clasp made from a measuring tape…it naturally snaps back into place. We’re very inspired by their initiative and ability to develop concepts and product ideas.

Guatemalan artisans with Las Casas snap bags

Are your products available in any physical stores/locations, or just online?
Primarily, our products are sold at local events (farmer’s markets, craft shows, and festivals). We also list limited-inventory on our website with an online store. Throughout different times of the year we’ll also host house parties in central Indiana, offering hosts 50% off as our appreciation for the support to expand our market.

We’re developing a plan to open our own storefront. We project to be situated with a Grand Opening in 1-2 years.

Are you members of any fair trade organizations or certifications?
Las Casas is not certified through any fair trade organizations. However, half of the cooperatives we’re supporting have their own fair trade certification. The other half that we support represent family owned businesses or individuals that are not formally certified, nor have they had the resources to do so at this time…which is exactly why we’re working with them: to empower them and provide opportunities for development, such as certification.

What’s next for Las Casas?
We’re extremely excited for our brand new project called #BeReconciled. We were awarded our first-ever Community Action Grant in November 2014 to implement a local project in Indianapolis that will facilitate dialogue in diverse community settings resulting in a public art installation.

#BeReconciled title image

As we gear up for #BeReconciled, we’re also launching an Indiegogo campaign to fundraise support with the goal of opening the storefront venue where we’ll offer Las Casas fair trade retail merchandise alongside the #BeReconciled Art Gallery. Once this storefront is secured, we’ll build towards plans to introduce the third and final component to the business, a small Guatemalan café. Check out more details on “what’s next” on our campaign page.

Thanks to David for sharing the Las Casas story!