On a visit earlier this year to Rwanda in central Africa, I gained a profound appreciation for the fair-trade effort.
Donatha Uwajeneza, several months pregnant and lugging a huge sack loaded with her handwoven grass and agave baskets, had traveled three hours by bus from her village, Muramba, to Kigali, the capital, hoping to sell her work to the vendors whose stalls cram the Kimironko market.
Uwajeneza is a mother of eight in a land teeming with need. Her grateful hug and proud smile when I bought a set of trivets, accented with strands dyed turquoise and sienna, brought me to tears.
In Rwanda, every little bit helps. In the United States, rare are the consumer experiences that leave you feeling that you made a difference in anything but a corporate bottom line.
Which is why I felt it necessary in this season of shopping overload to bring you the story of Donna Gottardi, a South Jersey small-business owner trying to make a difference in the lives of the world's Donatha Uwajenezas.
Gottardi owns My Fair Trade Lady, a trip around the globe contained in a 650-square-foot storefront on Station Avenue in Haddon Heights and online at www.myfairtradelady.com.
Among her offerings are lunch totes made in Cambodia from recycled fish-feed bags and dried rice grass, batik-designed clothing from Ghana, steel-drum art from Haiti, puppets from Tibet, and decorative boxes made in Bolivia from orange and grapefruit peels. Families, schoolteachers, coffee and cocoa farmers, even elephants can benefit from purchases.
The idea behind the varied inventory is not to overwhelm, but to show that fair trade offers vast buying options, Gottardi, 50, of Audubon, said from behind the counter of the stop she opened in 2013.
"It's about raising awareness. OK, we don't have a smartphone yet that is fair trade, but there are lots of ways you can make a difference."
It's a message suggested by the name of Ephrata, Pa.-based fair-trade retail chain and wholesaler Ten Thousand Villages, one of Gottardi's suppliers. The artisans whose creations she carries have been vetted by the Fair Trade Federation in Wilmington to ensure that their work has been produced ethically in safe conditions, and for a fair wage.
"We see a growth in fair trade because consumers want that," said Renee Bowers, the federation's executive director. "Shoppers . . . feel a need and desire to make the things they buy count for more than just things."
How does a sociology and anthropology major at Rutgers University, who went on to get a master's degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania, wind up opening a fair-trade store?
"I feel like I've been rehearsing to own the shop my whole life," Gottardi said, citing travel to at least 30 countries and teaching jobs in at least four of them, including China, as well as at several U.S. colleges and universities.
A matter of the heart ultimately anchored her stateside: She married Gary Haaf, a sixth-grade science teacher, in 2007.
Then came a 2012 trip to Nicaragua with a colleague at St. Joseph's University that would inspire Gottardi's commitment to fair trade. She joined Keith Brown, a professor in the sociology department who is the author of Buying into Fair Trade, and 15 students on a journey Brown routinely leads to follow the fair-trade coffee supply chain to its origins.
Gottardi concluded that a fair-trade store would fulfill two passions of hers: teaching and helping improve lives in developing countries.
Brown called stores such as Gottardi's "incredibly important" because they often serve as classrooms to unenlightened shoppers.
While not disclosing My Fair Trade Lady's sales, Gottardi, the sole employee, said it has been profitable since its first year, yet "letting people know that we're here" remains the biggest challenge. That's why she's a regular vendor at festivals and farmers' markets, and lectures wherever she's invited, from women's groups to Rotary Clubs.
Her passport still gets a workout, she said:
"I go and see our artisans. I was in Ghana in January."