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
  • Boris Bally's recylced street-sign chair gives direction to any room. $1,200 from The Artful Home.
    Photo Courtesy of The Artful Home
  • Sewn from discarded old sweaters, the Mighty Spiral throw pillows by designer Crispina Ffrench add a fun touch to any room. The folded Pot Holder Rug on the bench is woven from recycled cotton and wool clothing and is about an inch thick. Pillows: 12 inches by 28 inches, or 20-inch square, $135; Pot Holder Rug: 30 inches by 42 inches, $166.
    Photo Courtesy of Crispina
  • Brad Reed Nelson brings the outdoors in with his tables sculpted from standing dead spruce. $600 to $700 from The Artful Home.
    Photo Courtesy of The Artful Home
  • Ilala palm fronds dyed with berries, roots and bark give these Zulu baskets their earthy, harmonious tones. $20 to $1,200 from Baskets of Africa.
    Photo Courtesy of Baskets of Africa

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.

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