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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Greenheart: Lets Customers Help Change the World

Sep 26, 2012 10:42AM ● By Carrie Jackson

Photo: Greenheart Shop

The Spanish word, sobremesa, refers to the time after a meal when friends linger to share stories, smiles and perhaps a glass of wine—the literal translation is, “over the table.” It was an obvious choice when Greenheart, Chicago’s only fair trade, nonprofit, eco-friendly retail store, needed a name for their private label tabletop collection. Handmade by artisans in Guatemala, Peru, Tunisia and India, the line includes beautiful and unique napkins, bowls, serving utensils and other tableware made from wood, glass, linens and ceramics that beg guests to stay and converse.

The Sombremesa line is just one example of why Greenheart is so special. “We make the gap between producers and consumers more intimate,” says Sarah Cunningham, the store’s wholesale product development manager. The store follows the guiding principles of fair trade, which builds long-term relationships between the producer and buyer; guarantees the producer a fair living wage for their work; provides healthy and safe working conditions; empowers women and provides equal opportunity employment for all; and ensures transparency and accountability.

“We pay the artisans promptly and fairly, and prices are negotiated through dialog and looking at the real costs,” says Cunningham. “We also provide a 50 percent up-front payment so they can get their raw materials to work with.” While some of the artisan groups may be family businesses, another principle of fair trade is that children are never exploited. “The kids might help make lunch, but they’re not working in any dangerous or strenuous conditions,” Cunningham stresses. “Getting the children to schools is a priority.”

The Greenheart shop opened in 2007, and has been at the same storefront at 1911 West Division Street since 2009. It is part of the larger Greenheart movement, which includes workshops, education, travel and advocacy for cultural, social and environmental consciousness. Assistant Manager Katherine Blecha says that this diverse focus brings in a variety of customers and offers opportunity for education. “Some people who come in know about fair trade and want to support it,” says Blecha. “Others might visit us because we’re eco-friendly. Then there are those who don’t know what we are about and just wander in.” For new customers, the store offers an opportunity to learn about social commerce and feel good about where they shop.

The store buys from artisan groups in more than 60 countries, but also focuses on local nonprofit businesses. “We support social enterprises or businesses that exist for social benefit,” says Blecha. One example is Bright Endeavors, an artisan group in Ravenswood that sells candle and bath products made by at-risk new moms ages 17 to 24. The women go through a four-week training program where they learn manufacturing, marketing, inventory and customer service skills.

“It’s a great way for the women to get job training and experience,” says Blecha. Bright Endeavors uses vegetable waxes, natural botanicals, Dead Sea salt and reclaimed and Greenheart Chicagorecycled glass that all fit into Greenheart’s environmental focus. Building on a commitment to the community, the store recently invited in some of the women from Bright Endeavors to practice mock sales and get even more customer service experience. “They were fussing with the wrapping and ribbons on the candles—it was obvious they took a lot of pride in what they do,” says Blecha. “It was great to be a part of.”

Greenheart reaches out to the public in other ways, as well. They’ve had Ladies Nights for women to relax and mingle, and done theme nights like Make-Your-Own Chocolate or Make-Your-Own Gummy Worms kits. “We’re trying to do more in-store events that are both educational and fun, like getting people interested in an eco-friendly hobby,” says Blecha. They do sales offsite, educational sessions for businesses such as PepsiCo, and in-store presentations by local vendors.

The store sells everything from clothing and jewelry to home décor and garden accessories. They also have fairly traded chocolates, teas, honey, olive oil, couscous and other food items. They specialize in really unique finds, such as a lighting sconce made in Haiti from recycled oil drums and a messenger bag made out of recycled kites from the Dominican Republic. Because everything in the store is made by hand, there are sometimes small, nearly undetectable imperfections that make each product unique, such as an artisan’s faint fingerprints in the clay of a ceramic bowl.

Cunningham sees more and more customers caring about the impact of their purchases. “Consumers really want to know more about where the products are coming from,” she says. Learning that the wood from the bowl they are buying comes from a sustainably managed forest in the Amazon makes them feel good about helping both the artisans and the environment.

The focus on social consciousness and fair trade by no means implies that the importance of a good product gets lost. “We have a purchasing committee of young, hip women who are always looking for the newest, innovative, cutting-edge designs,” says Cunningham. “We get to share a good story, and the customers are supporting a good cause.”

Greenheart, 1911 W. Division St., Chicago. For more information, visit or call 312-235-6554.

Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based freelance writer and blogger. Visit her at