By Sara DiNatale
NEWS BUSINESS REPORTER
When Laurie Salerno needs a gift she isn’t dazzled by the low prices at large, supply chain-focused corporations. She favors El Buen Amigo – where stickers on merchandise don’t read, “MADE IN CHINA.” Rather, hand-painted and - carved wooden ornaments from El Salvador are accompanied by photos of the indigenous women who made them.
Santiago Masferrer, who has operated his nonprofit storefront in the heart of Allentown for 24 years, beams as he looks at the brightly painted wooden trinkets, while clutching a photo of women at work on the ornaments, and explains that two girls were able to attend college because of the money they earned from his store.
Masferrer created the Latin American Culture Association (LACA) 34 years ago to help people in poor countries sustain themselves by selling their art and handmade craft pieces in America.
And Masferrer isn’t the only vendor in Buffalo operating under fair trade practices, which ensures transparency and assures consumers the goods they are buying were made and purchased justly. The fair trade model cuts out the middle men and is geared toward alleviating poverty and helping artisans in Third World countries sell their goods.
Two other stores in the area, Ten Thousand Villages in Williamsville and Artisans’ Hands in the Elmwood Village, embrace a similar philosophy and are noticing their clients take a genuine interest in and seek out products they can feel good about buying.
It’s a national trend. Renee Bowers, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation, said inquiries about fair trade practices to her office have been increasing over the past few years. She described it as a “renewed energy and renewed awareness.”
“Consumers are realizing that they want to make a difference in the world,” Bowers said.
And that difference can be significant, according to Hodan Isse, an assistant professor of finance and management at the University at Buffalo. She said fair trade is one of the most important policies that can enhance the economy of a Third World country.
Salerno, who is on the board of directors for the Western New York Haiti Connection, has brought back merchandise for Masferrer from Haiti when the church under which her organization operates makes mission trips. Salerno said the people of Haiti “want help to help themselves.” That’s the philosophy under which stores promoting fair trade operate – they are doing their part to provide the market for people in impoverished countries to make their own living.
“So often, when people donate to those ‘1-800 numbers,’ the money doesn’t get to the people,” Salerno said.
When she walks into stores operated by big corporations, she wonders if the workers who produced the goods are earning livable wages. After seeing the despair in Haiti on a mission trip, Salerno said she understands the direct support buying goods straight from the source can have.
Masferrer’s Elmwood Avenue store bursts with cultural items from 17 countries and 80 communities in the Caribbean and Central and South America. After operation costs, he uses the profits to purchase more crafts. He has kept that cycle going for decades, even before the doors of El Buen Amigo were open. It’s the same model of the franchise chain Ten Thousand Villages, which has a location in Williamsville, operates on.
Ten Thousand Villages has a history stretching back over 60 years. What started as one woman selling needlepoint crafts from Puerto Rico to her neighbors in Pennsylvania has grown into a nonprofit company with close to 70 stores in Canada and the United States, according to Dianne Hull, the assistant manager and volunteer coordinator at the Williamsville location.
The Williamsville store, which carries goods from 38 countries, has had a presence in the Buffalo area for about 30 years under different names and in a few locations, according to Hull. She has noticed business picking up lately and people becoming more interested in fair trade.
“It’s kind of a trend,” Hull said. “It can be marketed as a good thing. More and more people are becoming educated,” she said, and want to buy fair trade items.
But she admits the store has its ups and downs and runs mostly on volunteers. Masferrer’s store and LACA as a whole are completely volunteer based.
Masferrer, who spent time as a political prisoner in Chile in the ’70s and has become a leader in Buffalo’s Hispanic community, faces the same kind business concerns. While Hull receives all the store’s merchandise from the company’s headquarters in Pennsylvania, Masferrer either travels himself, or has others who are traveling buy the crafts that fill his shelves. Masferrer is careful to give countries in the most need special attention when buying crafts, like with the Haitian goods, which are relatively new to his store.
Joe Lola, who assists Masferrer in the storefront and is the LACA events coordinator, said the storefront is able to generate about $50,000 a year and that 6,000 to 7,000 customers pass through the door annually.
“The good thing is we have good motivation to stay in place, not just money,” Masferrer said. “Indigenous people – that’s the real motivation.”
Hull says when people enter her Ten Thousand Villages store, they are often surprised the business operates on a nonprofit basis.
But the fair trade market doesn’t attract just those interested in nonprofit work; in November a new for-profit store, Artisans’ Hands, popped up on Elmwood Avenue. The store, though affiliated with Ten Thousand Villages, is not a franchise and also sells local artists’ work.
Tim Doolittle, the store’s co-owner, was inspired by the fair trade he saw in Ten Thousand Villages, but has built a customer base that loves the concept of helping artisans in other countries as much as he does.