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Smart Solutions: One-of-a-kind fair trade items tell a story

Smart Solutions: One-of-a-kind fair trade items tell a story

Jeanine Matlow | Special to The Detroit News

When it comes to giving, it’s the thought that truly counts. In honor of Fair Trade Month in October, the kindness behind the act becomes even more significant with meaningful gifts for this holiday season or any other time.

For instance, Thumbprint Artifacts offers fair trade items through their website ( In addition, co-owner Becky Riess says they carry pieces by local artisans at their Eastern Market location such as frames and trays made from reclaimed wood by Mutual Adoration.

“Everything is handcrafted and everything has a story behind it,” she says.

As for the artisans from South Africa and other countries, they are being paid fairly, have good work conditions and a chance to advance.

Ninety percent are single mothers who often support an extended family, says Riess whose business partner, Kris Engle, lives in South Africa, “We’re dealing directly with the artisans and we personally know their stories. They’re the happiest group of people you’d ever want to meet and they’re very proud of their work.”

When they started their business five years ago, they had around 50 or 60 artisans, and now there are more than 300. The African Beaded Animals make the perfect holiday gift. “A lot of people make them into ornaments for their Christmas tree,” says Riess.

A variety of candles ranging in price from $10 to $28 make great hostess gifts. With around 30 different designs, there’s something to fit every décor plus neutral, she says.

SoyLites are a big hit. Made from aromatherapy oils, the candles also work as a moisturizer for your skin. At $10, the SoyLites Travel Lites that come in a tin make the perfect stocking stuffer.

In addition to personal gift-giving, Riess says another trend is fair trade corporate gifts. “Everybody is becoming more aware that this is a small world,” she says. “With a gift that helps somebody else, the recipient appreciates it even more when it makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Valentina Schade, brand engagement coordinator for Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade retailer, agrees. Based in Pennsylvania with stores across the country including a location in Ann Arbor, the company also offers products online (

As Schade explains, there are many benefits when buying these items. “It’s the handcrafted beauty. In many cases they’re one-of-a-kind because each piece varies,” she says. “And you impact the person you give it to who can tell you went out of your way to find something meaningful that deeply impacts the people who made it and the community.”

These unique pieces let the artisans save for their future and put food on the table. “Every purchase truly does help people improve across the globe,” she says. While the artisans live in developing nations, some of their stores also carry products from Women’s Bean Project, an American-run organization specializing in nourishing food products.

At this time of year, seasonal décor makes a great gift. “People love our ornaments that go from a stunning masterpiece to the classic holiday look and fun whimsical ones,” says Schade. “Every country makes at least one.”

Other home goods include recycled sari straps that become laundry hampers and decorative baskets in the hands of talented artisans from Bangladesh, while the reverse painted glass trays and other items from Peru require special skills.

Handmade soaps that come in holiday scents like Mistletoe and Candy Cane are made in India from essential oils. At $5.99, they’re an affordable find.

Hostess gifts include handcrafted mugs and fair trade coffee and tea while the bicycle pizza cutter made by metal masters in India remains a customer favorite.

Journals made from tree-free materials like recycled fiber show the artisans are resourceful, too. “We try to encourage them to recycle or upcycle and use sustainable or renewable resources like grass,” says Schade. “With fair trade, they’re not rushed. They have the time to use old handcrafting techniques and do things really well.”