You’re walking through Whole Foods. You’re in the organic aisle wondering, “Didn’t this whole store used to be organic?” as you pick up a bar of chocolate. You see the Fair Trade USA logo on and assume that means it’s high quality.
Or maybe, as a teen, you bought a pair of TOMS, feeling good about the buy one, give one back business model. Not only did you get what you needed, in some way you felt you were making your voice heard, supporting a company that makes the world better, or at least doesn’t hurt it in the process.
Trying to be an ethical consumer isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Branding and marketing are powerful and greenwashing is definitely a thing.
So how can you be more mindful of where your dollars are flowing? In a day where fast fashion rules and ingredient lists are a mile long, how can you feel good about the purchases you’re making? And do labels and certifications like B-corp and authenticity stamps matter?
Let’s start off by what fair trade means….
What is Fair Trade?
Fair Trade is a term that most often applies to large-scale sourcing and supply chain. It tells consumers that products have been procured in a fair and equitable way.
Fair trade means paying workers fair wages. It means making sure working conditions are safe, while promoting gender equality. And it means supporting eco-friendly practices that offset any damages that production could cause to the planet.
You might recall the Nike sweatshops scandal, with reports accusing the footwear brand of extreme physical, sexual, and verbal abuse of women and children working up to 16 hours a day in their factories producing products. This was the first of many headlines exposing the supply chain issues related to outsourcing abroad.
With mounting pressure on brands to adhere to sustainable practices and create more transparency in their product development, one big question has been left out of the equation. That is: How are they coming up with their product designs in the first place?
No Photos Allowed in the Medina
Leading up to our Marrakech sourcing trip, we knew that many of the souks would not allow photos. Watching YouTube videos from my bed at night, I watched as influencers attempted to film their journeys through the medina and I wondered how I’d capture the experience while still being respectful.
Some bloggers wrote how they were charged $5-10 for a photo. Others snuck photos in quickly as they moved along.
At the time I wrongfully assumed (as many do) that the signs saying “No Photos Allowed” and shop owners charging for photos was another way of profiting off of tourism. And really how can you judge that?
But when I arrived I learned the reason behind this rule was far more complex.
Designers Using Traditional Moroccan Designs
Once in the city, we spent three days sourcing items for Range’s grand opening. As we met the shop owners, they shared with us tales of rising prices and having their original designs lifted and produced— for cheaper—in other countries.
The Moroccan aesthetic is unmistakable. And one of the things that struck me most about this trip was the artisanship that is still practiced today—items made by hand that could easily be machine made. And, of course, that influences the price and accessibility of these items.
While strolling through the brass section of the medina, some beautiful asymmetrical mirrors caught my eye. I feel like I’ve seen those before, I thought. And then I remembered exactly where. In a high-end American design catalogue.
I returned home and tracked down the catalogue. There they were. Not only were they prominently featured. They were listed as part of an “exclusive collection” under an LA-based designer’s name, detailed as having the “trademarks of her warm, edited style.” They were ten times the price and were sold out for months.
There was no mention of being Moroccan-inspired. And I’m fairly certain they’re not being produced in Morocco.
But this is capitalism, right?
How Great Art is Made
Designer Yves Saint Laurent is quoted as saying, “A visit to Marrakech was a great shock to me. This city taught me color.”
The design giant was so influenced by Marrakech and spent such time in the city that today there stands a museum entirely devoted to his work.
Artists, authors, and designers don’t get inspired by sitting in their Brooklyn lofts. They get inspired by getting out and seeing craftsmanship at work.
Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t about moving through a routine. It was about finding life, love, and meaning from traveling the world.
What to Expect When You Buy From Range
If a design or collection is inspired by a place, person, or work should it be banned? No, of course not. But it’s a slippery slope from being inspired to completely lifting someone else’s intellectual property.
Many of the places we’ve visited for sourcing trips have rich artisan histories and traditions. Their families and communities have been creating for decades or longer.
And by virtue of having limited access to materials, many of the items are handmade with natural fibers and resources. What we call sustainable or recycled in the U.S. is their only reasonable method of creating.
We recently had a woman stop in the shop and ask if we were fair trade. I chuckled a bit to myself and responded, “Well, we buy from makers themselves and we pay them the price they quote us. I think that’s about as fair trade as it gets.”
And while we’re proud to be building new lines of commerce, but also have to be realistic with the burdens this can place on makers. Vintage or traditional designs will always be more sustainable than producing “Moroccan-inspired designs,” which are often custom made pieces led by companies outsourcing to Moroccan talent.
And while we’re passionate about this topic, we won’t always get it right.
Here’s what we can promise:
- We’ll always give credit where credit is due. Our tags are marked with where items are made and we purchase directly from the source.
- Our store is carefully curated. Even though visual merchandising rules say that a more packed store will produce more sales, we try not to stock items just to have them sit there. We pick out everything on the floor and only buy what we love.
- We don’t purchase items that are made in factories. We source at a small scale and are currently involved in every step of the transaction.
- Our pieces aren’t for the bargain shopper. When something is made by hand and it takes hours, if not days or weeks, it’s going to hold up better than a machine stitch. Range products are statement pieces, meant to stay with you for the long-term.
- We work with local guides and build relationships. Part of the reason we’re able to purchase at the price point we are is because artisans want to have a lasting relationship. We respect that and aim to be return buyers.
- This is year one. Things may change in the future. And if they do, we’re here for the honest conversations. Thanks for shopping small. Thanks for shopping with Range.