Fair traders adapt to COVID times
Denise Attwood, co-owner of Ganesh Himal Trading Co. with Austin Zimmerman, has found that COVID-19 has created "interesting times" and challenges to the scope of the fair trade business.
Felipe Gonzales, Maria Cuc, Oscar and Penelope Haupt and Jillian Joseph have also found their fair trade outlets impacted by COVID-19.
They are all concerned about the people who grow coffee, weave textiles, and create the fair trade crafts, arts, ceramics, clothing and gifts they sell.
The four have found new ways to do business, including a "distanced" Fair Trade Festival in October and November and setting up a website to sell items online.
Sales of wholesale fair trade items Ganesh Himal receives from producers in Nepal and sells to U.S. and Canadian retailers dropped 50 percent since March. Sales were down nearly 90 percent in April, and 80 percent in May.
"We are digging out of a hole, but keeping everyone employed normal hours, with staff wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)," Denise said. "Because early on stores were closed and we couldn't do sales, we pivoted to help retail fair trade stores in the U.S. stay in business and adapt to the times."
In April and May, Denise, Austin and staff poured hours into helping consumers understand via social media how important it is to support fair trade and local stores.
Ganesh Himal produced a Facebook video on ways to help customers support fair trade, and encouraged stores to set up websites and use the power of social media to market, so people can still buy fair trade items.
"We tried to think creatively, encouraging people to buy gift certificates now and choose items later, arranging curbside pickup, using PPE in the stores and spreading the word about local fair trade stores they could support virtually," she said.
Sarah Calvin, Ganesh Himal's website manager, helped stores connect and learn how to represent themselves virtually so customers can support fair trade remotely.
Denise and Austin have been overwhelmed with how people have stepped up.
"Sales were down through July, but in August rose 14 percent. In September they went down a bit, but slowly people are adjusting and understanding how to connect with fair trade," she said. "People want to buy gifts, and support local and fair trade, but hesitate to go in stores. We are trying to help them learn new ways.
"Our concern is not only for fair trade stores but also for producers in Nepal, who were on complete lockdown from early April until late August," she said.
No one could work, except knitters and others who could work in their homes if they had supplies, but there were no shipments out of Nepal until early August, because there were no international flights.
"We asked people to continue to work and have continually checked to make sure they were doing okay," Denise said.
Ganesh Himal received a shipment in March right before the lockdown so producers received a large payment to help them until the next shipments in August and October, she said.
Usually, Ganesh Himal receives a shipment every two months, paying producers immediately so they have a steady income. They try to stay on schedule as international flights allow and expect a shipment in late November.
"By mid-October, COVID-19 was spiking in Nepal, and they did not have the capacity to deal with it," she said. "It is difficult because many people are day laborers working for low wages in construction, in households or as rickshaw drivers. They live on the edge and have no resilience to survive in a lockdown. Food is available, but they have no way to buy it."
Ganesh Himal's related nonprofit, Conscious Connections Foundation (CCF) has provided more than $12,000 in grants for food assistance and distributed 500 reusable menstrual kits, soap and masks.
The Association for Craft Producers (ACP), which works with 1,000 low-income women artisans in Nepal, has struggled with overhead and salaries for employees and producers because of a loss of business and there being no Paycheck Protection loans in Nepal, Denise said.
Because ACP houses the Power of Five girls' education program of the Conscious Connections Foundation, ACP's failure would mean loss of income for women and educational stipends for girls. To help keep ACP alive, CCF gave two grants totaling $40,000 to help cover operating costs, rents and salaries so they can continue.
The ACP has operated self-sufficiently all but four years since 1984 and has brought income to many marginalized families through fair trade. The grants have helped them weather the COVID crisis and stay in business, Denise said.
People are adapting and more producers can now work at home, but there is a shortage of supplies, and the costs of raw materials and shipping are rising.
"Through Ganesh Himal and CCF, we seek to create resiliency. We are happy that many of our producer groups are well and working, but we recognize many in Nepal don't have long-term employment, so CCF works with Nepali partners to identify those most in need and bring them relief," Denise said.
In the U.S., Ganesh Himal is building different audiences besides the fair trade stores. The Fair Trade Federation is now partnering with the wholesale distributor FAIRE.com to set up an online interface so stores can find different suppliers and set up a fair trade portion on their websites expanding the scope of fair trade.
"Retailers have found us through FAIRE.com," Denise said. "In August, we had $8,000 in sales to new small stores throughout the country.
"In the past, we have not done trade shows because of the expense and carbon footprint involved," Denise said, "but now we can connect stores through Zoom. So we are scheduling small Zoom trade shows without leaving town. Two stores a week can remotely shop in our warehouse by appointment to learn about new products. This is a success."
In addition, Ganesh Himal has helped Kizuri, Spokane's fair trade store in the Community Building at 35 W. Main, develop its website to expand their sales in this time.
So Sarah has been helping Kizuri create their website in time for the holiday season, and Ganesh Himal has covered her hours for this work.
"Initially, we are populating the website with Ganesh Himal products, because we already have photos for our website. Kizuri, Maya Color and Conosur Imports are adding their products over time. In the future, Jillian, who owns Kizuri, will have a website to help her reach communities throughout the Northwest and the nation.
Kizuri and Ganesh Himal are also holding the annual Festival of Fair Trade in a new way.
Rather than gathering retailers in the Community Building the weekend after Thanksgiving, one vendor will set up from noon to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays from Oct. 17 to Dec. 19, plus the Friday after Thanksgiving in the lobby outside Kizuri at 35 W Main.
By spreading out the festival as the safe way to do it, Denise said they offer "a little community," while supporting fair trade. Fewer customers—five at a time—can come in and shop distanced, with the vendor behind a plexiglass shield.
"We have kept our employees and producers paid and fair trade stores supported," she said.
Denise already worked remotely with producers in Nepal, so little of her day-to-day work has changed, because she has always communicated through emails and Facetime chats.
For information, call 499-3320.
Guatamalans make masks
Felipe, who came to Spokane in 2001 as grants manager with the Kalispel Tribe, began bringing Guatemalan coffee, textiles and products to Spokane. That evolved into the business Maya Earth Coffee and Maya Color at mundomayaenterprises.com.
He and Maria usually would sell at fairs and events two or three times a month, most outdoors in the spring and summer, but those events weren't held.
"Fewer artisans are making textiles now because of less demand with tourism down and limited travel," Felipe said. "Many are using their sewing machines to make masks."
For information, call 768-3193.
Conosur is doing few shows
Oscar said he and Penelope have recently done little business with Conosur Imports.
He has not gone to Chile for a year because of its high rate of COVID per capita. Chile has been in quarantine since March, so producers they work with are not making products.
Oscar said they pay the artists and workers in Chile up front and have accumulated enough products for several years. They usually do six shows a year.
For information, call 990-1098.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November, 2020