Handmade, Fair Trade: A Fair-Trade Buying Guide

A guide to help you find authentic handcrafted pieces that wed aesthetics with social responsibility.


New Sprout blankets from Crispina feature recycled materials and come in sizes perfect for baby. $134 to $441

Photo Courtesy of Crispina

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Unlike the rational, level-headed comparison shopping that goes into buying a mattress or a refrigerator, purchasing a handmade object—be it a luxurious wool rug or a ceramic vessel—is all about desire: You buy because you just have to have it. Before you let emotion carry you away, consider the following tips. They’ll help make your next purchase beautiful, inside and out.

Artful Selection, Thoughtful Buying

You can use these guidelines when buying from a retail store, direct from an artisan or online.

■ Ask questions. Where are the items made? Who makes them? Under what conditions? What materials were used, and are they natural, replenishable or recycled? Your inquiries show retailers this information matters.

■ Seek authenticity. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Mass-produced knockoffs drive legitimate artisans out of business and deprive you of an authentic work of art. Buy from merchants you know and trust, and investigate the reputations of those new to you.

■  Buy direct. Wholesalers and importers who are committed to fair trade play an important role in helping artisans get their products to major markets. Retailers such as Novica, Ten Thousand Villages, Aid to Artisans and A Greater Gift base their business models on buying directly from the makers.

■ Stay informed. Organizations such as the Rugmark Foundation, the Fair Trade Federation and Co-op America are advocates for fair trade standards, which ensure workers are paid reasonable wages, young children are not employed and working conditions are decent.

■ Check labels. Labels and tags can provide helpful clues about a handcraft’s origin and the conditions under which it was made. Carpet makers who participate in the Rugmark child-labor monitoring program are allowed to use its label. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies sustainably harvested wood products, and the logo is recognized worldwide. Businesses that are members of either the Fair Trade Federation or Co-op America often carry the endorsements on the label. When all else fails, check a product’s place of origin. If the Southwestern-looking vase you’re about to purchase says “Made in China” on the label, you can be certain it isn’t authentic.

Buying for a Child?

Always ask if the seller can verify that the item is free from hazards such as lead or heavy metals; they may even have an inspection or certification program in place. If the origin of the paint or other materials is unknown, choose another gift.


Fine Art, Crafts and Other Handmade Goods

Aid to Artisans
(860) 947-3344
design and marketing assistance for artisans in developing countries

The Artful Home/The Guild
(877) 223-4600
virtual gallery of fine art and crafts by North American artists

Baskets of Africa
(800) 504-4656
baskets handmade by African artisans

(413) 637-0075
blankets, throws, rugs and stuffed animals made from recycled clothing scraps

(877) 326-2781
gifts made from recycled, reused and natural materials

Global Exchange
(800) 505-4410
fair trade store featuring crafts, clothing, jewelry

A Greater Gift
(800) 422-5915
fair trade handcrafts and foods

Heard Museum
(602) 252-8848
Native American art purchased directly from the artists

Indigo Arts
(888) 463-4278
ethnographic art

(877) 266-8422
art from more than 2,000 artisans worldwide

One World Projects
(585) 343-4490
global marketplace for socially and environmentally responsible gifts

(301) 949-6625
links to artisans and e-commerce sites where they sell work

Ten Thousand Villages
(877) 883-8341
works by more than 100 artisan groups in developing countries

Fair Trade Organizations

Co-op America
(800) 584-7336
publishes the National Green Pages, a directory of approved green and fair trade businesses

Fair Trade Federation
(202) 636-3547
association of fair trade businesses and organizations

Rugmark Foundation
(866) 784-6275
certification of rugs made without child labor