Monday, December 28, 2009

Nest fair trade products promises to change the world

In three days, we will usher in a new year with hope for peace and prosperity. And for one fair trade organization, it continues its pledge to change the world one product at a time.

Build a Nest founder and executive director Rebecca Kousky has a simple vision for the future: empower artisans to rebuild their lives and communities.

Kousky offers "microbarting", a process she created that advances interest-free loans for materials, manufacturing space, and personal income in exchange for products that are sold through Nest's Web site and selected retail outlets. Products include jewelry, clothing, and home d├ęcor accessories.

"We wanted to provide a full transformative process," Kousky said. "It is everything from education to product development to sustained income."

Nest relies on in-country partners to assist the artisans in managing their microloans. Local non-governmental organizations and Peace Corps volunteers ensure delivery of training, receipt of loan, and supplies purchased.

The loan recipients are primarily women from a handful of developing countries who face economic hardship. Their status also prevents many from an education and business opportunities. Loan recipients Regina Kubiru and Elena Felipe Felix are worlds apart but bonded by their art. Kubiru, a 41-year-old Tanzanian seamstress, sells her dresses and traditional African baskets with the dream of owning a store. In Mexico, Felipe Felix draws upon her family craft of pottery making to create bowls worthy of a museum exhibit. The delicate designs and bright colors are signature traits of Mexican artistry.

The artisan relationship extends to a contingent of independent U.S. artisans who contribute their wares with proceeds supporting funds for additional artisans. They engage in a cultural exchange themselves by mentoring the established artisans cultivating a community of artists worldwide.

Nest comprises five employees and an advisory board in 12 U.S. cities, including Washington, DC. All contribute to the promotion of the company and its mission to enhance the lives of its participating artisans.

"We definitely want to grow in number of artisans we promote," Kousky says. "And in doing so, we get to preserve traditional craftsmanship and ensure sustainable livelihoods."

Image: Courtesy of Build A Nest
Mini-dress. 100% Cotton. By Rectangle Designs

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Todd Reed Jewelry: uncut to perfection

At I. Gorman Jewelers in downtown DC, encased are the world's most precious natural resources: diamonds, pearls, gold, and silver. Some are sourced from the most exotic places in the world. Several are produced under ethical practices.

Among the store's best sellers is Todd Reed Jewelry, a label synonymous with turning rough diamonds into morsels of perfection.

Reed, a self-taught blacksmith, embarked on an ambitious endeavor 22 years ago when he decided to immortalize the diamond's purest form. He started his journey by sourcing the raw diamonds from private collections and ethical mines in Sierra Leone (PRIDE Mine), Western Australia (Argyle) and Canada.

Reed designs and handcrafts each piece in his Colorado studio. There he studies the diamond's characteristics, informing him on which direction he should take. Perhaps, it is a bracelet reminiscent of a cobblestone street in old Europe where each diamond haphazardly placed yet protected by the strength of recycled gold. Or it is a cluster of rose cut and black raw diamonds fastened eternally by a band of 18k gold. In exchange, Reed's innovative designs have earned him industry awards and honors.

"I honestly make what I like," Reed said. "What is important is that the design is connected to the material and my customers make that connection, too."

Before green was the new black, Reed has lived and created with the environment and humanity in mind. A "right relationship", a term Reed coined, guarantees the authenticity, premium value, and social responsibility garnered from years of sourcing from the same suppliers.

Albeit reluctant to wear the "green" badge himself, Reed encourages consumers to research diamond suppliers before making their purchase.

Thanks to initiatives such as the Kimberley Process, retailers and designers pledge to source conflict-free diamonds. [The Kimberley Process, a joint government, industry and civil societies initiative, curtails buyers and designers from using potential conflict diamonds - diamonds used in exchange for weapons in war-torn countries such as Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) imposes extensive requirements on its members to enable them to certify shipments of rough diamonds as 'conflict-free'.]

"There is nothing more sustainable than using recycled diamonds or new diamonds mined in ethical conditions," Reed says. "They are truly the most beautiful resource we have."

Photos courtesy of Todd Reed Jewelry

Monday, December 14, 2009

Calamarie Promotes Colombian Artisans

Fair trade products often conjure images of hemp bracelets and "hippy-fied" macabre purses made from artisans in remote villages in South America or Africa. However, that was yesterday. Today, buyers are creating a market for artisans using recycled materials from metals to plant seeds fashioned into modern accessories and apparel.

Catalina Lemaitre, founder of Calamarie, has returned to her native Colombia to promote eight artisans whose designs evolve from all things organic.

For instance, dried orange peels, watermelon seeds, silk cocoon, groundcoffee beans, and Bombona and tagua seeds - indigenous to Colombia - are ingredients for beautifully crafted necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. Weavers use woven hammock and fique fabric to create handbags and clutches embellished with flowers and/or dyed in bold hues, vegetable dye that is.

Calamarie's products are to be experienced.

"The items have a real tactile feel to them because they are made from materials you would normally eat," Lemaitre says. "Our designers use discarded coffeegrounds or other materials to make something really beautiful. And still smell good."

Lemaitre draws upon her experience in economic development and art to advise artisans on product development and marketing in addition to supporting financially through microloans. For the majority of artists, their craft is their sole income.

Changing the image of "fair trade" products starts with the relationship between the customer and the designer, according to Lemaitre.

"Art softens people," she says. "Calamarie is about making the connection between art and culture. And hopefully, people will want to support artisans when they understand their story, when they know a little something about where the item came from and what it means."

Calamarie products are sold online and available for local trunk shows priced affordably under $100.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Simply Soles Gives Simply From the Heart

This holiday season will bring a ray of light to patients at Children’s National Medical Center thanks to the kindness of strangers. Leading that charge is Kassie Rempel of Simply Soles who kicked off December with a toy drive to benefit Dr. Bear®’s Closet at the Children’s National Medical Center of Washington, DC.

“I offered to do a toy drive because I wanted to give back this holiday season,” Rempel says. “A friend of mine told me about the Dr. Bear®’s Closet at the Children’s Hospital and I found it fitting since the hospital is in the neighborhood and personally-speaking, my family recently had a positive experience with the doctors and staff there.”

The closet provides items to patients who are treated in Children’s inpatient units, the Emergency Department and Regional Outpatient Centers, and the Health Centers. Toys also help stock playrooms in the hospital.

Rempel’s altruism is not seasonal. Since launching the accessories company, she has partnered with Suited for Change, a national non-profit helping low-income women transition to the workforce, for numerous fundraisers and offers a 10% discount when customers (online and in-store) donate a pair of gently used dress shoes.

If the mission of Simply Soles is to use fashion to enhance a woman’s style and confidence, then Rempel is a woman’s conscience.

“I look for unique accessories that are refined and well-crafted,” says the former accountant. “I have a responsibility to my customer and that means selecting shoes that offer both fit and comfort.”

And considering the supply chains’ impact on the environment and paying workers a fair wage is a non-negotiable. You won’t see Made in China. Rempel’s own line, lillybee by Kassie, is manufactured and packaged in Brazil. Come Spring, Rempel will offer a vegan line by Charmone.

Clients are encouraged to recycle their Simply Soles catalogs and reuse the stylish totes used for packaging, dubbed the “shoe shuttle” for heels and flats and the “boot bus” for boots.

Yes, Simply Soles is simply doing its part to better the world.

Toy Drive: Drop off a new toy, game, or book at the showroom now through Saturday, December 19 and receive 20% off any purchase. Showroom located at 1438 Park Rd NW, Washington, DC.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

VirtuArte Promotes Artisan Fine Arts and Fashion

VirtuArte is not just another source of fair trade products. It is a social business. Its online presence promotes artisans from the developing world in an effort to preserve their craftsmanship.

Scrolling through the Web site is akin to a virtual traveling museum. Start your journey in Niger where the Koumama family strings hand-engraved silver plates onto a fine leather cord worthy of any globetrotter’s neck. Venture next to Laos and stop at Lao Textiles to find Carol Cassidy, an American ex-pat, working with her 32 full-time weavers produce silk scarves embellished with traditional designs for the modern woman.

A. Jabbar Khatri employs the Indian tradition of Bandhani textiles, a tie and dying technique, to create delicate silk shawls complementary for an evening dress or worn to glam up a turtleneck and jeans outfit. From India head to Brazil to acquire a chic clutch made entirely from soda can tabs or Colombia for jewelry fashioned out of tagua seeds and stained with vegetable dyes.

VirtuArte founder Debbie Myers promotes artisans she has encountered through her travels or referred by ex-pats living and working among artisans worldwide. Myers pays the artisans their asking price directly sans negotiating. Profits from sales are reinvested into the company’s education and outreach program and a percentage invested in the artists’ communities.

For Myers, it is more than alleviating artisans out of poverty, it is marketing beautiful art.

“Helping artisans from developing countries generate a sustainable income is definitely an added value,” Myers says. “But we are also about offering high quality fine crafts and art to people who are looking for something unique and have an appreciation for customs and culture.”

It is only fitting that VirtuArte takes its namesake to heart: “the quality of being artistic, beautiful, rare or otherwise such as to interest a collector.” Webster’s Dictionary said it best.

VirtuArte Trunk Shows in December:

The Wintergreen Performing Arts Home Tour
Sunday, 6th of December 2009
1:00 - 5:00pm
Wintergreen , Virginia

Holiday Trunk Show
Saturday, 20th of December 2009
1:00 - 5:00pm
2800 Forest Hills Court
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23454