How to Have a Fair Trade Business: Live Interview with Manpreet Kalra

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What is Fair Trade: Live Interview with Manpreet Kalra 

We had the great opportunity to sit down and talk with Manpreet Kalra from the New York City Fair Trade Coalition, to discuss all about fair trade, why it’s important, and how to implement it in your business.

Christine: I’m so excited to be interviewing Manpreet of the New York City Fair Trade Coalition. She is one of the resource row partners at Texworld. We’re going to learn all about fair trade–what is fair trade, how to source fair trade, why that’s important and so on. 

Manpreet please introduce yourself and tell us more about yourself and the NYC Fair Trade Coalition 

Manpreet: Hi, my name is Manpreet Kalra, and I am on the board of the New York City Fair Trade Coalition. We are a grassroots organization based in New York. We have both members that are advocates of fair trade but also business members. So businesses that are practicing fair trade principles can be sure that they are sourcing responsibly and being thoughtful about their supply chains. That’s where I tie in with fair trade. 

Christine: Manpreet, what is fair trade? I think people throw this term around and don’t really understand what the true meaning is. And what does it actually mean to be a fair trade business?

Manpreet: To answer your question–I’m first going to discuss the foreground of fair trade. A lot in fair trade is working on diversity and inclusion along with digital storytelling. Fair trade is a term that’s thrown around everywhere, so there’s many people who don’t realize what it actually means. Fair trade is a commitment to making sure that you prioritize people and the planet over profits. That’s the easiest way to understand what it means to be a fair trade business or social enterprise. 

Christine: Now, can you be a fair trade business if you do one without the other? I would think the planet part is basically what sustainability is all about right now. A lot of people will say they’re a sustainable business but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a fair trade business. What’s your take on that? How does fair trade compare to sustainability? 

Manpreet: Fair trade started off as a commitment to make sure that you are paying the people creating the products a fair wage. That is how the fair trade movement started. Because we’ve seen so much exploitation of garment workers, makers, and artisans. 

Over the years the commitment has shifted over to being not just about people. It’s also about making sure you’re thinking about the planet as well. In the most true form of the word fair trade is more about people. But we’ve moved away from just that and started to focus on how businesses are affecting the planet too. People and planet go hand-in-hand. There are many communities impacted by global warming so the planet is a critical part of fair trade as well.

Christine:  And that definitely makes sense. If you’re trying to treat people fairly and pay them a good wage then they need to have good drinking water, etc. too.

Manpreet: Exactly. When I came into fair trade I was thinking it’s about people. Over the years I’ve come to realize that you can’t think about one and not the other. It really does go hand-in-hand. 

New York City Fair Trade Coalition

Christine: I totally agree. Could you talk about what the New York City Fair Trade Coalition is really doing? What’s their role in all of this?

Manpreet: So the New York City Fair Trade Coalition is a member organization. We are a grassroots organization that’s truly dedicated to upholding the principles of fair trade. But I would say the unique values that we really provide to our members is education. 

We believe that it’s important for people to not feel that they’re only tie to fair trade has to be by having a fair trade business. You can be a consumer that is also dedicated to fair trade principles. We believe that it’s important to acknowledge the fact that everyone has a role in how we create and consume products. 

The New York City Fair Trade Coalition in particular is really dedicated to fostering relationships between both businesses and advocates. And creating platforms for education. 

Christine: You’re all about collaboration which is great and just educating people is so important. I feel like that’s the first step to anything. We have to educate and become aware.  And you support a lot of businesses too. Talk a little bit about the support that you give businesses that sign up for your platform as a fair trade business. 

Manpreet: For us, it’s really critical that we create a community of both businesses and advocates who can collaborate. So for businesses we often get a lot of opportunities for them to showcase their products and brand to larger consumer groups. Again, the most critical aspect of our businesses is to make sure that they have a diverse platform. A platform where they can not only take advantage of great learning opportunities but also be able to provide to them resources and access to markets and events–like TexWorld. For us it’s being able to share our members with everyone else and being able to show the amazing work that they’re doing. It’s less about the organization. It’s more about the members and the advocates that we have been so lucky to work and collaborate with. 

Christine: That’s so awesome. And I’m sure businesses, especially when they’re first starting up, have a ton of questions. Right? How do I go about starting a fair trade business? What will that cost? And I’m sure you’re a great resource for that.  

Manpreet: For us it’s really important to really match these businesses up with the resources that they need. So regardless if you’re an established fair trade business–some of our members and businesses have been around for many years now–or just starting out, it’s really helpful to just be in that collaborative environment. It’s what we really pride ourselves in–creating and fostering. 

Who’s Actually Making the Clothes?

Christine: I know that the Fashion Revolution started the whole ‘Who Made My Clothes’ movement and that’s still very popular today. How does that build on the principles of fair trade? And how are you involved with that as well?

Manpreet: So the Fashion Revolution basically came out of the collapse of Rana Plaza–a garment factory in Bangledesh–in 2013. The ‘Who Made My Clothes’ movement came out of that collapse and what it pushes for is more transparency. 

At the end of the day what we realized is that fast fashion is most notorious for garment factories with really poor working conditions. For us what’s really important is making sure that we create and push for a movement where… Click To Tweet

It’s not just about taking care of your employees in San Francisco. But about taking care of your employees at every single stage. Maybe the cotton pickers who helped create the cotton for your T-shirt to the person who takes that thread and makes that t-shirt. Look at every level, we want to be thoughtful of how that person is being taken care of. 

Bringing it back to the ‘Who Made My Clothes’ campaign, for us I think as not just fair trade but sustainable fashion movement. It’s really important that we uphold the principles of fair trade and transparency. We believe that people should ask, where are my clothes being made? We help support that. 

A huge part of what fair trade organizations do is dedicating ourselves and our goals to making sure that people are thinking before they’re buying. Thinking about how to not just demand transparency but also commit to the longevity of the products. So, the products that you are buying, you want to make sure that you are maintaining their longevity.

Fast fashion is based on the principle that you buy and toss. It’s really consumer based. That’s something that we are really dedicated to in fair trade. Making sure that people realize it’s not just about buying and throwing away clothes is crucial. It’s about buying thoughtfully. It’s about knowing where the product is being sourced from and who’s making it. Then finally making sure that you’re committed to the longevity of that product. That’s how you can truly be not just fair to people, but also to the planet. 

The World Fair Trade Organization

Christine: I know that a lot of people are not aware that fashion is the number two polluting industry in our world. That is really shocking. Especially when you really think about all the other industries that are out there. 

Now you touched on another point of all these different organizations–the WFTO, Fair Trade Federation–can you talk a little bit about the different organizations? Their standards, their principles and what they’re doing to help combat fair trade. 

Manpreet: So WFTO stands for World Fair Trade Organization. They are essentially a certified body, and they work with brands and businesses based anywhere in the world. Their principles are truly about making sure that they have their own set of standards that they vet businesses by, before they can be a WFTO business. 

Another certifying body that is out there is Fair Trade Certified, and that they have their own set of principles as well. All of these different organizations have their own principles but they’re all very similar. They’re all dedicated to the same mission. It gets a little confusing at times for people though. 

Then there’s the Fair Trade Federation, which is actually not a certifying body but a member-based organization. They’re actually a trade organization, so they have their own way of vetting members too. Many members of the Fair Trade Federation are WFTO certified, so there is a lot of crossing that happens between the organizations. 

Each of these are very different. First you have Fair Trade Certified, Fair Trade USA, WFTO, FTF, and there’s a wide range of them. But the all stem from the same principles about fairness of people on the planet, just their way of measuring impact can be a little different. The way that they look at supply chains can be slightly different.

The final thing is, to your point about the SDG’s or the sustainable development goals, these goals are essentially the basic principles that really align the fair trade. They create a concrete picture of what fair trade should look like for communities everywhere in the world. It’s about really focusing on the systemic issues, addressing poverty and many of these hard-hitting issues head-on. So a lot of these fair trade organizations really do feed into that mindset as well. The SDG’s and fair trade principles really do cross talk quite a bit.

Christine: Anyone that’s not familiar with the SDG’s I recommend you do some research. It’s really good to pay attention to what all of these things really are.

Now I would assume, if you’re a clothing designer, you should probably look for a factory that’s certified with one of these certifications, correct? 

Manpreet: Most definitely. So there’s a few different ways that people go about this–two main ways really. The first way, you go through the WFTO and you search for organizations and businesses that are factories that are fair trade and have gone through their vetting process. 

So yes, you can either work with a pre-established cooperative company that already has the label of one of these organizations, or you could go a separate route which is setting up your own cooperative. This way is much more complicated and much harder. But you can go your own route and do this. You just need to make sure that you are looking at what bodies you might be working with and wanting to get certified through. And then also making sure that you’re upholding those principles, because all of them will come and they will do a check. They want to see how you are doing and making sure that you are hitting the marks. You could go that route but it is definitely a longer and more difficult process.

Christine: Yes I can imagine, we probably don’t recommend that route. 

Manpreet: If you’re just starting it’s probably easier to go through one of the pre-existing portals and finding someone to work with through there. There’s some great cooperatives that are already certified and established. 

Or you know sometimes there is a community that some entrepreneurs may want to work with, and for them that is the answer–setting up your own operation. I know plenty of people who have and it’s a great way if that’s the goal that you’re trying to accomplish with your business.

“Made in the USA”

Christine: I work with a lot of upcoming designers and a lot of them want to make in the USA and I’m a big proponent of made in the USA. But, at the end of the day made in the USA doesn’t necessarily mean its fair trade. Maybe you could speak to that a little bit because I think that’s a misconception that a lot of people have.

Manpreet: Yeah, so you can make in the USA, but just because you’re making in the USA doesn’t necessarily mean the garment workers or the makers are actually being paid a fair wage. 

We see this in LA a lot. There are many garment factory workers in Los Angeles that are not being paid fair wages. It’s a huge misconception to assume that just because something has a made in the USA label, that means that it is somehow immune to any sort of exploitation whatsoever. 

It’s kind of this idea that, you know we’re living in a really interesting time right now, this conversation that we’re having is this idea that we often think that exploitation is an overseas issue. But like human trafficking happens in every zipcode. That is not something that is purely an issue that happens internationally, it happens here as well. We need to recognize that just because it’s made in the USA does not necessarily mean that it’s being ethically made or it’s being ethically-sourced.

Christine: I think that’s a really good point. 

What is one piece of advice, Manpreet, that you want to leave everyone with those who are thinking of starting and practicing fair trade for their business?

Manpreet: I would say that anything good is not easy. I think that it’s really something that people don’t realize, is that actually being committed to paying fair wages and actually being committed to really caring for the makers at every level of your supply chain is dedication. It takes commitment, and it’s a commitment that I think is really necessary. 

I personally feel that if you are thinking of starting your own business, really be thoughtful about where you’re sourcing from. I’m really hoping that someday we won’t need to have certifying bodies to say this is fair trade. We need to normalize fair trade. So, I really encourage you to help normalize that everyone deserves to be paid fairly and equitably.

Christine:  I agree totally. Well, it’s been so lovely chatting with you Manpreet, thank you so very much for your time. 

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