501(c)3 Non-Profit | Empowering Haitian Families

Fair Trade? How about B.E.A.N. trade?

Let me first start by saying that life in Haiti (or should I say life in general) has left me disillusioned with a lot the past few years. My first experiences with orphanages and the quantity of kids in them with parents who love them led us to start the Apparent Project-an artisan initiative to keep families together and help end -to the capacity that we could- child relinquishment with poverty as the determining cause. My disillusionment in Haiti has only continued by the way that I have witnessed food aid kill the farming industry, clothing handouts kill more industry, medical aid shut down hospitals, religion linked with handouts kill the core values of those religions, school sponsorships breed a large quantity of bad schools in order to receive that sponsored aid. etc.. etc.. (and my heart desperately wants to see the good in all of this).
The disillusionment only continued as we began our artisan program and started to work with and get exposed to various “fair trade” organizations that approached us to carry our artisans’ work.
Some of my first set of shocks came from some of the most notable fair trade companies explaining that they could get necklaces similar to what we were making in Africa for as little as 50 cents per necklace. My head went into a dizzy spin the first time I heard this. Are they trying to low ball Haitian workers by bragging about how they are successfully low balling poor Africans in order to get us to lower our prices? What in the world? Fair Trade? A quick look at some of the price points on these “Fair Trade” websites show a mark-up of 10-50 times what they paid for the item. Wow.. quite the impressive sales gimmick isn’t it?
Now don’t get me wrong, but the time an item for sale is made, marketed, transported, re-marketed, had signs put on it, been placed in a well lighted air-conditioned store, paid the driver and the salesperson- a lot of people have to be paid along the way. There is no getting around that. What I don’t like is when companies who consider themselves “fair trade” seek to remain competitive by pushing the price point down at the most critical link in the chain- with the poor artisan who made the darn thing.
Let me spell it out for you. If an item was going to be listed in the store as fair trade and the wholeseller could get away with paying 50 cents for the item to the laborer who made it, but was selling it to the retailer for $12 and then the retailer was marking it up to $36 for the consumer- what if instead of trying to negotiate 50 cents for the piece, they instead paid $1.50 for the piece at the beginning and absorbed that cost at the end selling it for $13.50 wholesale and then $37.50 retail?
Would you buy a piece of fair trade household good item or accessory that you knew the artisan who made it was actually getting triple what could have been paid but only costs a fraction of the cost more for you? Of course you would.. that’s what “fair trade” is all about. It’s about letting people be able to rise above the poverty line and not exploiting them for our own luxurious spending.
Now economists (and factory owners) who are a lot smarter than I am will tell me why the world will come crashing down with the reckless rising of prices to a reasonable wage for the poor, but i can’t say that I’m buying it from where I’m sitting.
Here’s what I am thinking. Screw Un-Fair Trade. I have come up with my own standard of paying something that is competitive, marketable and doable.
B.E.A.N. trade.
I’m talking about what it takes to meet your basic needs as a family.. to put the “beans” on the table everday. In Haiti, at least in Port Au Prince, for my artisans, this works out to be about $300 per month- or $15 per work day. This is an extravagant TRIPLE the minimum wage in Haiti -just to be able to feed your family appropriately, pay rent on a one room shack with a tin roof, and send 2-3 kids to a semi-literate school. (We’re not even touching emergency medical needs, transportation, church clothes or any of those things…)
My experience as we were striving to employ people is that EVEN THOSE WITH JOBS were looking for orphanages to give their children to because they couldn’t take care of them. A worker in one of the local orphanages is getting paid $60 per month because her meals are also included in the salary. Her FIVE children are at home starving. What is she supposed to do when she sees the kids in the orphanage getting three meals per day? This is a no-brainer for a loving mom.
BEAN Trade works like this. For our artisans, we take a piece of jewelry, a basket, a metal work piece, or a purse and we observe our artisans at work. We find out the average production total per day of each individual item, divide that by $15 per day and BAM.. we have BEAN trade… families who can pay for their lunch AND their kids to go to school.
Let me break this down a little further. If an artisan can make 30 pairs of earrings in one day comfortably, we pay them 50 cents per earring. If we were simply “fair trade” we could pay them 16 cents per earring. The difference is 34 cents per earring. When we go to sell this pair of earrings to a retail store, we figure out our costs for materials and overhead costs and sell this pair of earrings for about $2 per earring to the retailer instead of the 1.67 that we could get away with at a “fair trade” cost. The retailer doesn’t balk too much about the difference and happily marks up that earring to between 5-10 bucks, where you, the consumer, are happily wearing a piece of jewelry for the same price you just spent on your mocha frappuccino and you don’t even know that you are enabling a family to be able to shelter themselves, feed their kids, and send them to school because of the 34 cents that got added in at the bottom of that price scale.
That is what we do with our piecework at Apparent Project. We make sure that everyone has the ability to work in order to pay for their basic everyday average needs in Haiti. BEAN TRADE.
Now to make things even more complicated, and wonderful… and even better for our artisans, we also have our HOME party option. THIS ROCKS MY WORLD. You know why? Because there is no retail middle man. We pay our artisan currently 60% of what sells at a home party. We use the other 40% to cover shipping, quality control, daily meals for our artisans, and our other overhead costs of running the artisan center. At this 60% earnings, that same artisan who made that pair of earrings for 50 cents (at triple the minimum wage) can sell it to you directly with no retail middle man and make a whopping $3-$6 per earring depending on how much you paid for it. It is these kind of home party sales that has allowed Makilene (last year covered in scabies and looking for an orphanage for her five children) to purchase her first two room home this year. It has allowed Sonia, mother of five to purchase her first land this year. It has allowed Joceline the privilege of being able to afford a wedding after 18 years and five children with the same man. It has allowed Frenel to be able to buy a motorcycle and start up a moto-taxi business. It is the home party sales that are allowing our artisans to rise ABOVE their basic every day needs and change the course of their lives.
So whether you buy our items in retail stores or through home parties, rest assured.. what we are doing is more than FAIR….. It’s BEAN trade (and yes you look lovely in those earrings!).

  1. Such a good post, Shelley – THANK YOU.

  2. Well, sad to hear that some "fair-trade" is done like that (low-balling to 50 cents for a piece of jewelry). Hopefully not all companies who use the term fair trade do that because it's hypocritical.
    What you are doing is great. It's the main reason Francoise has been able to do a rent-to-own property (has a bunch of money stashed away toward the big payment in 4 years), had her kids school bills paid way before the end of the school year, etc. We were able to help her get a one-room block house for free, but she doesn't take it for granted at all and works very hard to feed & clothe her 3 kids & take them to the Dr. You know this, but I put it for your readers.
    You are doing a great job.
    And I love your BEAN idea and the $15 amount as a minimum.
    Your network of home party people are amazing!

  3. I'm going to repost this on my facebook page… thanks for spelling it out. I LOVE being able to be involved! Love you… Bean!

  4. Love this!!!!! Thank you for giving us an honest look at fair trade. I definitely prefer BEAN trade, and I can't wait to host another party!!!

  5. Hi Shelley! Your love for the artisans (and their families) comes through loud and clear. I am embarrassed to say I think I was involved in the meeting re: the cheaper African beads. I can see the point of wholesale and selling more quantity, but when it comes to it, the results YOU're seeing with your specific families means that something must be working! Plus I love the personal connection. Keep it up. Even when you're tired and it seems nothing matters. I'm glad Jeremy and Tamara introduced me to Apparent last year.

    Amy King

  6. Thank you for writing out how your organization works. I appreciate you "calling out" so called "fair trade" organizations. It makes me sick though—how my heart hurts for everyone involved!


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