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Shop Small. Shop Local. Shop Early.

Sep 30, 2020 ● By Megy Karydes
Venture Imports

Photos courtesy of Venture Imports

This season, it will be more important than ever for customers to shop their ethical values and support local organizations. Chicago Fair Trade is making it easy to do just that. “Shop small and support your local businesses” has been the mantra independent and local businesses have been leveraging to encourage their customers to bypass the chain store and online giants if the goal is to enjoy a thriving business community and stronger tax base. We might want to add shop early to the mix this holiday season, because many businesses won’t be able to restock as quickly as in years past.

Fair trade products appeal to many customers that want to buy handmade items produced ethically, sustainably and traded fairly, meaning the artisans that harvested or made the items are paid a fair wage. Because these products are all made or harvested by hand, the organizations that import them tend to be smaller, and the retailers are also smaller businesses.

While their size may allow them to be more nimble than larger retail and wholesale business counterparts, they are not immune to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Katherine Bissell Cordova, executive director of Chicago Fair Trade, the largest fair trade coalition in the United States. The active nonprofit organization includes a dedicated base of businesses, educational institutions, congregations, nonprofit organizations and individual activists.

Photo courtesy of ILAVA

 Rahel Mwitula Williams, founder and creative director of ILAVA , is a member of Chicago Fair Trade. She launched a socially responsible brand that uses fashion to empower women and inspire change around the world with product lines that include lifestyle fashion, jewelry, handmade cards and home décor.

The global pandemic may have added another layer of uncertainty to many businesses today, but the entrepreneur notes that there is always a small measure of uncertainty with businesses like ILAVA, and she says the way ILAVA operates has prepared them for moments like these. “We only produce a small amount, and we are not obligated to the fashion industry calendar, meaning one or two seasons ahead,” says Williams. “We are truly ready-to-wear.”

Jennie Misner, another member of Chicago Fair Trade and owner of Chicago-based Venture Imports, agrees. “Our products are all handmade using simple hand tools, so it takes quite a while for our orders to be made,” explains Misner. She works directly with her artisan/partners in Kenya, a country that has been hit especially hard by the global pandemic, as well as loss of tourism, which translates to a loss of a local market for them to sell their goods.


Shop With A Conscious Version 2.0

Six themes are reshaping consumer goods and services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report released by global market research company Euromonitor International, including a move from sustainability to purpose. There has been an identified industry-agnostic trend toward purpose-driven purchasing that is spurring a move beyond ethical and eco-conscious to a holistic approach that creates social, environmental and economic benefits.

“People’s shopping habits are changing,” says Cordova. Where in the past, shoppers participated in a bit more retail therapy, where we might wander around a shop and get inspired to buy something. Now we’re thinking about each product we bring into our home on a much deeper level.

“I think people have really been thinking a lot more about how much mindless shopping we did just to kill time in-between activities or on the way home,” notes Cordova. “Now, we’re thinking about every purchase. We’re so much more intentional about every single thing we buy.” Even grocery store provisions like apples have to make the cut. When Cordova makes a visit to the grocery store, she looks at every single item and asks herself, “Will I really eat this apple? Do I need it?”

The other thing we’ve begun noticing is our home environment, because we’re spending more time there. We’re purging clutter that’s been accumulating for years, and that’s caused us to confront another issue we rarely consider when we purchase new items: the end of the life cycle of those products.

Photo courtesy of ILAVA

 Membership-based organizations like Chicago Fair Trade that support fair trade companies and their artisans provide answers. “It’s not about just shop, shop, shop,” insists Cordova. “It’s you pause and think when you’re in the market to buy something for your home or a new piece of jewelry for yourself or a gift for someone, consider buying fair trade. Who you support matters. What you buy matters. Make your buying matter. Be intentional with your purchasing. It’s not just about things. Fair trade also helps to make the environment in which we live safer and healthier for all.” One example she offers is face masks. “Everyone has to buy face masks; buy face masks from one of our fair trade members,” she offers. Organizations like Chicago-based Malia Designs, another Chicago Fair Trade member, has created reversible fair trade masks, complete with a matching pouch that easily attaches to a key fob or bag.


Fair Trade Supports Artisans

One of the best way customers can support fair trade throughout the year, and especially during the holiday season, is to research and follow the social enterprise brand on social media, suggests Williams. Take the time to learn more about the artisans and the organizations.

Also, shop early, because unlike products that are mass-produced at a factory and piled up in a warehouse, fair trade products are made by hand. While several fair trade companies are stocked well right now, many of them say once their stock is depleted this holiday season, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to replenish quickly because the global pandemic has shut down many of their operations around the world.

Many fair trade importers are working with retailers and artisans this season by making changes to their business model. Because Misner isn’t beholden to trends, she’s been able to keep her artisans working by taking pre-orders from retail clients and having their orders shipped by air instead of seaborne containers, which she normally does to keep shipping costs down.

For those shopping during the holiday season, Chicago Fair Trade will host a holiday pop-up shop at 2717 N. Clark St., in Lincoln Park, starting in November through Christmas. What has become a shopping tradition for many, the shop will feature more than 40 fair trade organizations with merchandise from jewelry to home accessories, and foodstuffs such as fair trade coffee and chocolate. For some perspective on how wildly popular this event has become over the years, the organization rang up $30,000 in sales its first year. Last year, it sold $220,000 in seven weeks.

This year, shoppers will have a number of options to get their shopping done. To shop in-store, Cordova says they will be offering times that customers can reserve in advance so it will be stress-free and safe because they’ll be limiting the number of people inside. For those that might be uncomfortable to shop in person, online shopping opportunities with curbside pick-up, as well as offer personal shopping services are available. “Shop small,” says Misner. “Small local businesses can really use the support. And if you can, shop early.”


Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based writer who is partial to fair trade coffee and chocolate. Find her at