It’s strange, the difference one year can make. Looking back at the story we posted for last year’s fair trade month, there was laughter and learning with four inspiring women from Nepal. They were representatives from artisan group Manushi, who traveled all the way to the United States to share the story of their humble beginnings. Padma Shakya, the founder, told about her vision for gender equality, and how she works hard to teach women of grassroots communities about their rights. She shared some of the wonderful transformations she’s witnessed in her time with Manushi— how, very slowly, the women who come to Manushi will begin to embrace their femininity, rather than feeling ashamed of it. They will start wearing lipstick and start carrying themselves with confidence— things that most women take for granted growing up in the U.S. In that moment, we had no idea that one year later, they would be surrounded by so much sadness, as the aftermath of an earthquake continues to hinder their daily lives.
However slowly, progress was being made by Manushi and other fair trade groups around Nepal. But all their hard work and progress seemed to crumble as the buildings fell to pieces around them. The earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, 2015 killed 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000, leaving countless without basic necessities. The availability of food, shelter, and medical assistance all became dire. An entire ancient city was reduced to rubble in a matter of an instant. But as the citizens in and around Kathmandu still fight for survival, fair trade is helping to restore normalcy.
Relief funds are vital when it comes to natural disasters. Every dime that is contributed makes a difference in a circumstance like the earthquake of 2015. In a country with a low-income economy to begin with, there’s no question that rebuilding after a disaster requires international aid. But when those funds dwindle away, victims are often left with nothing—no job, no security. That’s where fair trade can make a huge difference, picking up where relief efforts and funds may have left off. Since fair trade was already in place in Kathmandu, groups like Manushi were able to restore jobs and daily routines to many of the makers in the area. Going to work every day might not be a quick fix for suffering, but it certainly is an important step in the healing process. The self-sustaining system established by fair trade allows communities to help themselves recover, without relying on outside help, which is exactly why fair trade functions so elegantly.
In August, the Ten Thousand Villages warehouse received our first shipment of handcrafted items from Nepal since the tragedy. That shipment marked a meaningful moment for us because we knew that every item in that box was a symbol of resilience, and of recovery. While most people in the United States have moved their minds onto other matters, the well-being of Kathmandu’s population is still a topic of conversation at Ten Thousand Villages. We maintain frequent contact with makers in the region. They send us photos of the conditions the disaster left in its wake, and they send requests for more product orders. Because while they still face hardships, they rise each morning with purpose and a drive to accomplish something.
In a store display, a small piece of jewelry or a scarf may not seem particularly important. But to the person who created that item, it’s the most important thing in the world. Going to work each day gives the maker something positive to focus on, and at the end of the day, they know they will be paid fairly for their work. Fair trade protects the dignity of makers, and they feel the fulfillment of supporting themselves while doing something real to improve their situation, rather than relying on others.
Areas like Kathmandu, where fair trade organizations are already in place, recover from tragedy much faster than places where there is no such system devoted to the well-being of its residents. Natural disasters cannot be prevented. And they often impede what progress a community might have made. But if that community is strong to begin with, it stands a much greater chance of a fast recovery.
When we support fair trade, we are building strong communities where individuals are empowered to help themselves and others. Fair trade happens when humanitarian ideals meet a self-sustaining business that can function on its own. We see our successes playing out in Kathmandu. And we believe that this model of putting people first will improve the lives of makers everywhere, no matter the obstacle. It comes down to ten simple principles:
Maybe you made a contribution to a relief fund. That is awesome. But even when organizations are not calling out for aid and disasters may no longer be getting news coverage, there are still ways to promote restoration, preserve dignity, and encourage justice. Every fair trade purchase makes a difference. The makers at a fair trade workshop are always paid in full, upfront. So by purchasing a fair trade item over a conventionally traded item, you are supporting the system that brings equality and opportunity to those who need it most. Every time you buy something you are making a choice that is reflected in the market. If ethically sourced items are in high demand, more and more companies will need to think twice about where their products are coming from.
People like Padma have devoted their lives to fair trade, and they have no regrets. Watching their hometowns improve because of their work is all the satisfaction they need to keep moving forward. Padma knows she is improving the lives of her beloved people. And that’s what is most important.
With a little bit of time and effort, Nepal will not only heal—Nepal will thrive, and fair trade will make it happen.