30 March 2013

Last Day of Women's History Month: A Conversation on Fair Trade and Women's Empowerment

Oi minha gente!

Tudo bem?! Desculpa por falta de escrever! I have been sooo busy lately preparing to present my Fall 2013 collection for the Beau Monde Society's Earth Day Fashion Show and researching ethical fashion for my Gallatin NYU thesis, that I have been a bit M.I.A! But before the end of women's history month, I wanted to let you all know of a pretty awesome event that I attended a few days ago that addressed not only women's empowerment, but women's empowerment in the context of fair trade.

The New York Fair Trade Coalition has done it again; they have hosted yet another successful event at the Wix Lounge- this time in honor of Women’s History Month.

The theme of the panel, “Empowering Women through Fair Trade,” featured two entrepreneurs- and a host of predominantly women audience members in a vibrant conversation on the ways in which ethically manufactured and fairly compensated products can be a vehicle for empowering women in contemporary society.

The conversation began with Benita Singh, fellow Yale University alum, and co-founder and CEO of this intensely informative ethical sourcing site, Source4Style, who spoke not only of her experiences in fair trade but also of the importance of maintaining your priorities as a fair trade company. As the former president and co-founder of internationally renown and maverick fair trade company, Mercado Global, Benita has had plenty of substantive experience working with women on developing marketable and salable products in a variety of societal contexts. In her conversation to this group of predominantly women, who themselves ranged from Fair Trade company CEOs and student organization presidents to New York based indie ethical designers, Benita charged us with the task of thinking about how our fair trade endeavors affect communities and how we can be most effective in our assistance. Her strategy has been to help communities through the promotion specialized skills, whether it be a community specific form of embroidery, block printing or tapestry weaving.

(Meet the Source4Style Team, Benita Singh (left), Summer Rayne Oakes (middle), Elizabeth Cloyd)
Photo Source: Treehugger.com

The second panelist, Zolaykha Sherzad, fell much in the same vein with the added element of creating a hybrid between the locally specialized and westernized tailoring techniques. Zolaykha’s company, Zarif Design, merges the skills of traditional Afghan embroidery and textile craft with western tailoring techniques, relying upon the developing skills of women and the tailoring techniques of men to create a unique hybrid of cross cultural aesthetics. In addition to creating a company that employs women from the community through the practice of specialized, traditional techniques, the company also provides literacy courses that continue to have residual benefits in the quotidian life of these female artisans, from being able to read important notices at the doctor’s office to extending that literacy to their children. During the panel, Zolaykha emphasized her desire to use Zarif Design to dismantle preconceived notions of the West in Afghanistan by “connecting people to people,” merging western techniques with crafts local to Afghanistan as a means of using fashion as a vehicle for cross-cultural exchange and collaboration.
(Zolaykha Sherzad and one of the Zarif Design artisans)
Photo source: Time.com

(Photo by Gabriela Maj)

As informative and inspiring as the panelists were, the Q&A that followed touched on critical issues that most conversations on fair trade and women’s empowerment neglect. Becky Bavinger, co-founder of the Destiny Foundation and co-leader of the New York Fair Trade Coalition with NimetDegirmencioglu, asked an essential question that arguably could have been the title of the evening, “How do you measure women’s empowerment?” In the conversation on how to start a business, businesses are founded upon figures, figures that must be communicated to investors, supporters, and many times, the public. If women’s empowerment is so important to the functioning of a business, how do you communicate that? And in what ways do men support women’s empowerment after they have become employed by these fair trade jobs? In answering this question, the panelists spoke of the ways in which this question is contingent upon addressing the cultural difference between rural gender dynamics and urban commercial culture. They also spoke of the ways in which men, in certain communities, simply have different roles that at times mean that women are still responsible for maintaining the home even if they are also now employed in these fair trade jobs. Nonetheless, Benita carried the conversation into another direction that I feel could potentially be the fruit of a future panel. 

She responded with emphasizing that fair trade businesses, for profit entities created to bringing products to market, are distinct from social service organizations. She remarked “When you’re trying to do everything, you’re not doing anything justice.” It can be a challenge, especially as many who are involved with fair trade work are conscious of needs of empowerment and want to have an impact beyond social figures. However, in order to effectively support a community through fair trade business, it is critical that a company focus on the business. This does not exclude the business from doing the remarkable literacy service work that companies such as Zarif Designs does; however, maintaining that focus is essential.

With that the floor opened to questions, where Nimet, co-founder of Soham Dave and co-leader of the Coalition, confirmed the importance of being 100% present and active in all of the countries in which one is working. Benita and Zolaykha agreed. Whether your business partner maintains operations in the other country of business locale such as Nimet, or you visit the country where your production is based several times a year, such Zolaykha, it is evident that presence is essential and key. Nonetheless, unlike production, technology-based companies, such as Sources4Style, can extend its mission in a more widespread manner, distinguishing the ways in which production-based and technology-based companies can empower women and how far and outreaching their effective impact can be.

The evening closed with presentations from Bob Bland of New York-based indie designer incubator Manufacture New York and Nivedita Chandrappa of New York-based, social service sewing collaborative non profit, Wishwas, bringing the conversation of global and non-U.S. based fair trade back to emerging, locally based projects here in New York. We ended yet another successful New York Fair Trade Coalition event with ethical treats provided by Runa Tea, Steller Organics Wine and Kopali Organic Chocolates with beautiful and ethical products provided by Friends of Fresh and Green Academy and the Destiny Foundation provided a fashion feast for the eyes.

So how does Fair Trade empower women? By creating a conversation that brings the question to the forefront of our ethical business minds and our ethically curated closets.  


  1. Hi Tamara,
    Love this ! That's a very detailed article of the evening. Thanks for sharing.

  2. So glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for organizing and hosting such a wonderful event!