Windham woman strives for shopping’s moral high ground
WINDHAM – Fed up with the sweatshop manufacturing process that provides Americans with low prices but perpetuates poverty in the Third World, Windham resident Karen Burnell started Karma Fair Trade in the fall of 2007 as a way of providing social justice and good products at a good price.
Her small business is considered “fair trade,” according to the 45-year-old Burnell, because it helps to prevent the exploitation of workers in poor countries. With more money finding its way back to the workers, local economies are lifted one small business at a time helping to alleviate social problems like human trafficking, she said.
Burnell considers herself an evangelist for fair trade. She eats, sleeps and breathes it. And this weekend, she has been invited to present her wares, most of which were made by creative and entrepreneurial women in Africa and South America, at Trinity Lutheran Church on Main Street in Westbrook. The Lakes Region Weekly recently sat down with Burnell to find out more about her work as a fair trader.
Q: Why did you start your company, Karma Fair Trade?
A: I started because of the commercialization at Christmas, frustration with having to go out and buy gifts, no meaning, and what’s the point of Christmas, that whole feeling of wanting it to have more meaning, but still having to buy gifts. On top of that, I’m getting invited to all these home parties. We won’t name them but everyone knows what they are, for kitchen goods, expensive jewelry. And then I got hold of “Not for Sale” by David Batstone which is all about human trafficking, which happens all over the globe, including our country. So, all this was swirling around my head and I realized I can create a company bringing meaningful gifts that are beautiful that people want to buy and they’re fair trade, and they’re putting people at less risk of being exploited.
Q: What is “fair trade?”
A: It’s a lot of things. It’s an alternative business model. It’s a social justice movement and it’s a tool for international development. I’ve struggled how to put it into a single sentence. I think people can relate to sweatshops. It’s sweatshop-free products. It’s basically transparency in the production line. They get paid a fair wage. It’s all of those things. And it also has a very stringent environmental component to it. A lot of fair trade products are recycled. But what it comes down to is this: If you buy a fair trade item, you’re helping people who are poor or who were previously being trafficked for sex. That’s what that product represents. That’s intense.
Q: Do the folks who create the products end up better off? Is that the whole point of this?
A: It usually ends up improving the situation. Say it’s someone making jewelry. With higher profit, they’ll end up expanding their business and bring more usually women into it. It might be as easy as giving a woman a sewing machine so she can start her business, so wherever there’s a poor country, there’s an opportunity to buy products that pay them fairly, versus them leaving their village and going to a factory.
Q: When you think of fair trade, you think of people working out of their homes, not in factories? Is that true?
A: I would say the majority are small operations, small cooperatives, people staying in their communities rather than going to a big city. Maybe coffee is made is a larger factory. But I’m not a fair trade coffee expert.
Q: What are your best sellers?
A: Baskets from Ghana. I have paper that’s made out of elephant dung, the purpose of which is to save the Sri Lankan elephant. They need their poop to make the paper, so they stop shooting their elephants.
Q: Are the countries from which you buy politically stable?
A: If you have an incredibly poor country, is it stable? It usually isn’t. I’m no expert, but I get the feeling the reason these beautiful countries have such poor people in them is corruption.
Q: Which countries do you deal with?
A: Cambodia, Thailand, India, Guatemala, Ghana, Mozambique. Wherever there’s poverty, there’s a product I can sell. There are just so many.
Q: What kind of goods do you sell?
A: Unique items: Baskets, jewelry, stationary, toys, soapstone, clothes, home goods, decorative items, a little bit of everything.
Q: Where do you sell?
A: I do in-home parties. If someone contacts me I can do fundraisers, special events. I have a website now, www.karmafairtrade.com. And if anybody ever needed anything, they can literally call me, and I oftentimes meet them in parking lots and give them something, and they don’t have to pay the shipping.
Q: Where did you get the name, Karma Fair Trade?
A: I wanted to think of a name that people understood. Do good things and good things will happen to you. It’s universally understood.
Q: You must feel really good about this business. Does it bring a little direction to your daily existence.
A: It drives me, consumes me, to the point where I think I must be completely crazy. I know my husband does. He says: Are you making any money? I’m like, Not yet. I’m breaking even at this point. My bills are paid.
Q: Do you have to pay taxes?
A: I collect and have to pay Maine sales tax, that’s it.
Q: How do you know what is fair trade? Have you ever been duped by somebody who’s actually running a sweatshop?
A: When I buy my products through my 20-plus suppliers, I go through the Fair Trade Federation and they oversee the whole process. There are a number of similar overseeing organizations, by the way. They’re the ones that check the transparency, the production line, and stamp that this is in fact fair trade. But for consumers, there are stickers on products that ensure it’s fair trade.
Q: Is there a fair trade organization for Maine?
A: Not that I know of.
Q: Home parties must be few and far between. Are you going to start a store?
A: Yeah, but I’m too scared. Does anybody want to give me free rent? I had to choose between a store and a website and I chose the website. But my dream eventually is to have a store. It’s in my brain. It’s a gorgeous store, you should see it.
Q: Have you been to these countries?
A: I have not. But I definitely want to. There are hundreds of wonderful people who have made the connections in the communities where they’re making the products, and they bring them here. So I view my job as to get them out so everybody can see them and sell them and touch them and feel them.
Q: Has this made you more sensitized to the issue of buying for your own family?
A: Yes, I rarely go shopping and if I do I definitely wouldn’t go into a box store. Yes, it’s hard for me to shop now.
Q: You seem like a fair trade evangelist.
A: I feel like an evangelist for fair trade. Half of what I do is selling. Half is education. I’m trying to educate people because people don’t know what fair trade is. One of the things I should be doing is get out and speak about it. And if anyone dares to put me in front of a group of people, I’m more than happy to speak about it.
Q: What will you have on sale at Trinity Lutheran Church this Saturday?
A: Jewelry, baskets, elephant pooh stationary, soapstone, home goods, batiked (waxed dye) pot holders, bags and purses.
Q: How much does this stuff cost? Is it expensive?
A: Fair Trade doesn’t have to mean expensive. It’s perceived as expensive probably because there’s so little of it in Maine. But fair trade marketing has slim profit margins, because much of the money is going back to the person who made it, unlike regular goods which don’t pay fair wages to workers.
But my stuff starts at $1 for a threaded bangle that’s made in India to my most expensive items, which are pearl necklaces, pearl jewelry for about $60. The baskets are only $37, which is a bargain and that’s why they’re my biggest seller. Most basket makers will look at them and say wow. I can’t list everything I have, but I’d love it if people showed up. They’d be supporting the church, the artisans, and I’d love for them to schedule a home party of their own.
Windham’s Karen Burnell will be selling baskets and other fair trade items she’s imported from African and South American villagers at an event in Westbrook on Saturday, Oct. 16. In three years selling fair trade goods, the inspiration for which came from David Batstone’s book “Not for Sale,” Burnell has become even more conscious of how Americans’ shopping habits affect the world economy and can perpetuate Third World societal problems such as human trafficking. Staff photo by John Balentine