This is a guest post written by CFT volunteer Ashley Rowan. All photos are courtesy of Mata Traders.
With the 10th Anniversary of Chicago Fair Trade approaching, I paid a visit to one of the original founding members, Mata Traders, to learn about the fair trade journey through their lens.
A bright March day finds me strolling up to the converted 1916 warehouse building where Mata Traders has made its home. Three flights of stairs later, I am greeted by kind voices, smiling faces, and warm light pouring through their many windows. The space is a perfectly designed labyrinth of shelving; brightly-colored patterned fabrics; clean rows of desks with hard-at-work occupants; a feeling of calm, of purpose, of creative electricity. Surrounded by such beautiful things, with what feels like limitless places for my eye to play and dream (I have been a Mata fan for years), I sense a current pulsing through it all: the energy of a shared work for the global good. In the farthest corner, among beckoning racks of garments and jewels, I take my place in a vintage chair. Laura Mobley, Mata Traders’ marketing manager, invites me to make myself at home; I settle into the pink velvet-upholstered seat, excited to learn more.
AR: Can you tell me about the story and mission of Mata Traders?
LM: In 2005, Maureen [Dunn Fetscher] began making yearly buying trips to India and imported crafts like fabrics, bangles, and antiques. The next year, she decided to seek out fair trade products after realizing how important it is to pay a fair wage directly to artisans. She had a women’s sewing cooperative stitch her a small line of clothing, and Mata Traders was born.
Mata Traders’ mission is to “fashion a better world” by creating designs that celebrate a woman’s originality and empower her to use her dollar for change. We merge uncommonly vibrant style with fair trade practices to make an impact on global poverty— bringing sustainable income to artisans in India and Nepal.
AR: How has the landscape of fair trade changed over the past ten years?
LM: In Chicago and beyond, the fair trade has a much larger presence; at trade shows, in stores, and online, there are more opportunities to choose fair trade products. I remember when the options for a fair trade shopper mostly included coffee and chocolate—there was a smaller selection of goods. Now, we have seen Chicago become a Fair Trade and Sweatshop-Free City. Fair Trade has a unique community in Chicago.
AR: How does Mata set itself apart in the current world of fast fashion?
LM: We are focusing on utilizing artisans’ talents to create goods that appeal to a wide audience. We create design-driven, fair trade clothing, often using traditional, handmade techniques (such as block- printing, screen-printing, and hand embroidery). We aim to create on-trend/high design clothing while also ensuring our artisans are paid fairly and have safe working conditions.
AR: How has Mata grown and evolved since its inception?
LM: Mata started with $3000 and the idea that if we could design a dress instead of a kurta, which our groups were used to making, we could sell 300 pieces instead of 30. Our ultimate goal has always been to bring the groups more business and increase their social impact. We now have 15 employees at our Chicago office and our products are sold in all 50 states and 12 countries worldwide, providing a stable source of income for families in India and Nepal. We have five artisan groups who create clothing, one group that creates jewelry, and there is a great story behind every piece.
AR: What has made the most impact on you personally working in the fair trade industry? Can you share a story of an impactful/gratifying experience you’ve had working in the fair trade industry here in the Chicago community?
LM: Taking part in the Holiday Pop-Up Shop every year has been amazing; seeing the survivors who fair trade has helped, and Chicago going Sweat Free. Learning that every purchase I make is important. We are all connected in the world and every action and/or purchase we make matters or makes a difference. It may seem like a small drop in the bucket to buy a fair trade dress over a fast fashion dress, but it can still help bring change in the world. My whole purchasing approach has changed. I am more conscious about what I buy, because my whole mindset has shifted. This affects every aspect of how I purchase, down to the food I eat.
AR: What’s your advice for people who want to become more involved in the world of fair trade?
LM: Volunteer at Chicago Fair Trade! 🙂
Find fair trade companies and stores at Fair Trade Federation and Chicago Fair Trade’s websites. Start small – pick a type of product you’d like to start buying fair trade and then slowly add on other types of products. Switch to fair trade coffee, sugar, and/or chocolate, or try to buy one fair trade clothing item this spring instead of three fast fashion shirts.
Educate yourself – read articles about fair trade, free trade, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, etc. to learn more about the issues affecting workers all over the world. There are lots of resources online.
AR: What does fair trade mean to you?
LM: It has shaped who I am. I can’t imagine not working in fair trade, being part of an industry that is making a move towards people being treated fairly.
Laura shared with me about a trip to Guatemala, where she had the opportunity to meet with artisans. Seeing how products were made was a reminder to always think about where our goods come from. She spoke to the remarkable power of many voices coming together to tell a story, and it’s a story that belongs to all of us. We get to decide when we make a purchase, large or small, what kind of world we are funding.
We say our good-byes and I step into the chilled afternoon air, grateful for a glimpse inside Mata Traders’ slice of the fair trade world. Thinking of how important it is to know where something comes from, I search my own history. I come from Chicago, and in this moment, I am thrilled to call myself a native of a city with such a thriving community of purposeful, responsible makers and creators. Thank you, Chicago Fair Trade, for raising the bar in this city and beyond. Here’s to the big, bright, beautiful future of CFT.