WHAT STARTED MORE THAN A DECADE AGO as a few individuals selling fair trade products at church-sponsored holiday craft fairs has blossomed over the years into a full-scale retail operation with a brick-and-mortar store—HumanKind Fair Trade— that just celebrated its 10-year anniversary in downtown San Luis Obispo.
“It really started out of the efforts of community members who wanted to see a fair trade store happen in San Luis Obispo,” said LynAnne Weist, manager of HumanKind Fair Trade, about the retail establishment that shares space along the 900-block of Monterey Street with other local retailers such as Boo Boo Records, Ascendo Coffee and Phoenix Books.
“They would do a holiday craft fair, bring in fair trade items from different fair trade companies and sell those products at the holidays,” Weist explained about the local fair trade movement that began at SLO’s First Presbyterian Church. “People started saying, ‘we don’t want to wait till Christmas to buy this stuff. We want to have a store year-round where we can go anytime and have fair trade products available that we can buy as gifts.’”
And since July 1, 2009, residents and shoppers in downtown SLO have been able to find fair trade items ranging from hand-woven baskets made by women in Rwanda, jewelry crafted by refugees living in the United States, dishcloths made from recycled sari fabric and handmade cards designed by women freed from sex trafficking in the Philippines, plus so much more.
At any given time, Weist estimates HumanKind Fair Trade showcases and sells the products of artisans hailing from between 40 and 50 developing countries across the world. When asked how many people the store helps to employ by importing the various artisans’ work, Weist said it has “to be in the thousands.”
Fair trade can be best defined in simple terms as an ongoing global movement comprised of a diverse network of producers, companies, shoppers, advocates and organizations putting people and the planet first, with an end goal of helping individuals (often artisans) in developing nations achieve better trading conditions.
HumanKind Fair Trade teams with other companies already working globally and directly with artisan groups to import their products to the SLO store. The partner companies also ensure the artisans are truly creating single-craft products and paid a fair wage for their work, Weist said.
“We have a really wide network of fair trade organizations that we work with and partner with, all with the focus of supporting those artisans in developing countries,” she said, noting the partnerships allow for a diverse offering of merchandise in the store.
“As a small retailer, we wouldn’t be able to travel around the world and find all of these things. We really rely on this network of really wonderful organizations that are working around the world, and they need us to bring these products to our community and to create more markets for those artisans.”
One of Weist’s jobs is to choose what products to bring into the store and figure out what will sell to savvy shoppers and what won’t. She’s also always looking to bring in products crafted by the artisan group HumanKind Fair Trade supports.
“Is that in line with our mission? Are they operating by fair trade standards? So is that something that fits not only into our aesthetic but also our mission,” Weist explained about choosing what the store will carry.
HumanKind Fair Trade’s mission is to “provide income to artisans and farmers in the developing world” and Weist said an organization goal is to get people thinking about where the products they purchase and consume come from, which is also key to the fair trade movement.
“We want people to connect with the artisans, the person who made the product,” she explained, noting a lot of times the signature of the person who made the item is etched into it or on the tag.
“One of our goals is to get people thinking about who made their stuff and where their stuff came from,” Weist added. “To be able to connect our SLO community with somebody on the other side of the world who’s making products and trying to support their family through that, through fair trade, it is a wonderful way to connect those people and give a global perspective.”
San Luis Obispo resident Elizabeth Aebischer, a mother, teacher and lover of unique gifts, led the movement to bring HumanKind Fair Trade to her city’s downtown core, helping form a board of directors in 2007 to lead that charge, which began with fundraising to establish the store.
Today, the board of directors is eight members strong, HumanKind Fair Trade (which operates as a nonprofit) is self-sustaining and the retail establishment employs three full-time people and has a cadre of 25 to 30 individuals that volunteer at the store.
“This is a big operation in terms of the people involved,” Weist said. “It’s small store, but we have a lot of people involved here. Even though we are a nonprofit, we don’t want to rely on donations because that’s just not a very sustainable model for us. We have run this organization like a business and we want it to be self-sustaining and for our sales to cover all of our expenses.”
HumanKind Fair Trade is located at 982 Monterey St. and is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
For more information about the store, its products and mission, visit www. humankindslo.org or call 805-594-1220. Individuals can also shop the store’s products via its website.