Questioning Fair Trade's Legitimacy

Vanessa Elizabeth the witty and funny blogger behind Wander Onwards and self-describes as an "Indian-looking Mexican who speaks Spanish, German and Chinese, and has yet to find a permanent 'home.'" Her world view is informed by her perspective as a second-generation Mexican American who is very aware of the privileges she has because of the sacrifices made by her family members. And what is she doing with her hard-earned US-passport-bearing privilege? Blogging and traveling to "make sustainability 'trendy' and cool in developing nations."

I, Cinthya, connected with her because I identified with her background as a Chicana out to share her unique perspective and values with the world. I loved Vanessa's vibe and blog ideas: seeing her reflection in Utz Threads' products. As such, we will be featuring several of her posts over the course of the next two months, starting with her provocative look at fair trade. This post is based on a conversation the two of us had about Utz Threads models and fair trade's accessibility in general. So here's Vanessa's take over. Enjoy!

Vanessa Elizabeth of Wander Onwards with her Utz Threads Ixcanul Messenger Bag in Warsaw, Poland earlier this month. 

Is fair trade a scam? Are elephant sanctuaries just a new money-making model? Did Mother Teresa kill Tupac? #WestSide Who even knows any more?

The whole general concept of fair trade seems sound – a decent wage for a decent day’s work. However, from the comfort of my couch, it doesn’t appear that the quality of life for the working-class in developing nations has changed much. So where is my money going?

From the comfort of my couch, it doesn’t appear that the quality of life for the working-class in developing nations has changed much. So where is my money going?

 At its core, fair trade is about inclusion. With the rise of globalization, certain communities are boxed out of participating in the global economy due to a lack of resources and access. In order to bridge this gap, consumers and companies can make conscious decisions to better integrate everyone.

Along with integration, it’s also about creating a bottom line. Fair trade provides opportunities outside of sweatshops and other horrendous conditions so people can begin to save, invest and build something for themselves; it allows for a dignified chance to thrive.

I spoke with Cinthya Flores – founder of Utz Threads – to debunk or validate my concerns and her response surprised me. Here are the top misconceptions about Fair trade and why it’s well worth your money.


1. It’s impossible to establish a ‘fair price.’

When I buy a fair trade banana in London – in theory – it’s ‘the invisible hand of the market’ that determines the price based on the additional costs associated with the farming, transport and logistics associated.

But what about with more subjective commodities – like textiles?

Cinthya explains that,

“The key is communication. By consulting with other like-minded organizations and local communities, fair trade companies can ascertain better what price will allow artisans to improve their quality of life and business.  It creates a space for people to express their voice and to be their own heroes. Fair trade allows people to play a more powerful role in their own stories through self-determination.

Co-ops aren’t churning out millionaires, but your money is helping people send their children to school, improve their living conditions, and often, invest in better machinery or processes.  

2. The money goes straight into the pockets of the parent company…

… and back into the business. Displaying these wonderful gems to the world isn’t cheap or easy. It might seem easy to set up an internet store, but competing on the world’s stage against brands who pay abysmal wages alongside horrendous working conditions takes effort and capital. 

Keep in mind, it’s not just the artisans who need to eat and pay their bills. What about the marketing department behind those lovely photos? How will the pieces get to their final destination without a wonderful operations manager behind every parcel?

There is a long supply chain behind every purchase made with love and it’s important that everyone can pay his or her rent at the end of the day. 

Behind the scenes of the creation of the Atol Blanco and Cuarteado Coin Purses in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

3. Fair trade and big brands are all the same.

WRONG. Fair trade eliminates the need for excessive working hours and harmful work conditions because there’s a commitment to preventing both. This brings dignity back into the handmade textile and clothing business as fair trade requires a decent standard of production and conditions. It demands accountability from everyone’s end.

Whilst you are paying a small premium for safer, better working conditions, fair trade also injects dignity back into the fashion industry as many of these traditional artisans have been left behind with the rise of globalization. With fair trade, you get a finished product that was carefully made with love. These connections – from one human hand to another – create a sense of camaraderie.

So what REALLY happens after you purchase a bag from Utz Threads….?

You are buying directly from weavers and seamstresses... 

Who are able to send their children to better schools with the dignified wage they earn working with Utz Threads.


Transparency is important to us here at Utz Threads. If you have any questions about the processes or people behind each and every one of our products, you can always reach out to us with questions. Plus, if you sign up for our newsletter (sign-up is right below this post!), you will get quarterly informational newsletters straight to your inbox about fair trade in Guatemala as well as other educational content.



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