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Fair trade makes world neighbors

Trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal wearing sweaters knit by a Tibetan refugee diverted Denise Attwood and Ric Conner from other career plans into what has become the fair-trade movement.

Their business today, Ganesh Himal Trading—named for a favorite mountain in the Himalayas—was one of the early fair-trade ventures and helped shape that movement.

Denise Attwood
Denise Attwood shows a Tibetan sweater.

The refugees wanted to sell the handmade sweaters in the United States so they could earn enough to send their children to school.

Impressed by the quality of the sweaters, they agreed to send a box home and try to sell them.

Denise, a 1977 graduate of St. George’s School in Spokane, met Ric, who grew up in Seattle, at Huxley College of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham.  They graduated in 1983 before their six-month trip to China and Nepal.

On their return, Denise’s parents, Wayne and Joy Attwood, rented the Civic Theatre and invited friends to see and buy the sweaters.

“The people who bought them loved them,” Denise said. 

They sent money from the sales to the producers and had enough for Ric to go back and buy more. 

Denise, who entered law school at the University of Washington to work for social justice, helped Ric sell sweaters at summer festivals.  He sold them on college campuses the rest of the year.  In her second year, she realized selling the sweaters was a way to work for social justice that had a direct impact on people’s lives. 

While selling sweaters, Denise and Ric talked about the lives of Tibetan refugees.  They became involved in the Tibetan Rights Campaign.  When they moved to Spokane in 1988 after she finished law school, they became Eastern Washington coordinators for the campaign.

“We exposed people here to concepts they had not considered,” she said, “and they were receptive. 

“We became world neighbors,” Denise commented.

They settled on the West Plains.  After two years, Denise went back to Nepal to develop relationships so they could work with other groups interested in keeping their cultural traditions and helping the  most marginalized producers.

In 1986, they began working with the Association of Craft Producers, organized in 1984 by a Nepali woman to help widowed and abandoned women.  It now includes 1,200 women throughout Nepal.  They also connected with the Bhaktapier Craft Printers (BCP), which UNICEF started.

They met traditional Tibetan artists, jewelers and silversmiths, whose children no longer wanted to continue those traditional arts.

“Parents feared the skills would be lost,” Denise said, “but because there is now income in the work, the children are coming back to their traditional family work as jewelers, finding stable income and keeping family ties.”

When they first started Ganesh Himal, the only peers they knew were Self-Help Crafts (now 10 Thousand Villages), Pueblo to People and Equal Exchange fair trade coffee.   The term “fair trade” didn’t yet exist.

Denise Attwood was among early fair traders.

As others started, they began to develop principles of “alternative trade,” which included discussing unfair trade issues, and establishing a partnership of consumers and producers.

When they established Ganesh Himal in 1986, they decided to be a for-profit rather than a nonprofit business.  As a sole-proprietorship, they do not need to make profits.

“We believe it’s important for people to see that a small business can be socially responsible, so we decided to be profit-making, but stick with our principles.  That way, we bring fair-trade principles into the market,” she said.

Denise discussed some of those principles:

One principle is to assure an equitable, fair wage that does not change the economic balance for producers in their communities.

“To pay producers too much would throw their local market off balance, to pay too little is unfair,” she said.  “Our Nepalese partners decide what are fair prices based on their costs and what they need for a living income.  They know the nuances of their system and culture.”

Ganesh Himal Trading, which now sells wholesale to about 200 stores in the United States and Canada, adds the cost of shipping and marketing the items, and enough to make a living. 

Often people tell Denise and Ric they “should make more,” but the couple just want a roof, food and a living wage so they can send their son, Cameron, to school, have health care and a pension, and contribute to the community.

A second principle of fair-trade is long-term, sustainable relationships, equal partnerships based on mutual trust and transparency.  Fair trade particularly includes people of color, women and refugees, who are marginalized from the major markets.

“We are friends with everyone we have worked with,” she said.  “We collaborate with Nepalese craftspeople as partners to develop new products or designs.  Sometimes we suggest ideas that will sell in the U.S. market or design changes to save production costs and improve marketability, keeping their interests in mind.  They choose products they can continue to produce so they have a stable market.”

A third principle is to use local materials, such as hemp grown without pesticides in Nepal.  Most craftspeople work in their homes or in small group workshops, not in factories.

A fourth principle is engaging in discussions with customers, many of whom oppose war and are interested in fairness, equality, Tibetan rights, the environment and U.S. policies.  So along with generating money for families, Ganesh Himal provides a platform for political discussions and education.

Many consumers want to use their purchasing power to engage in social justice action.

In the early 1990s at an alternative-trade conference in Washington, D.C., with 14 others doing similar forms of trade, they decided to call their movement “fair trade.”

Denise is on the board of the Fair Trade Resource Network—at—and Ganesh Himal is a long standing member of the Fair Trade Federation—at  FTF organizes producers, wholesalers and retailers.

Over 20 years, the movement has taken hold.  At a Fair Trade Federation conference two years ago in Chicago, there were 750 participants.

The North America Fair Trade Association helps build the business framework for fair trade, while the Fair Trade Resource Network focuses on fair-trade education, in K-12 classrooms and on World Fair Trade Day.  There are events in 60 U.S. communities.

In Europe, Denise said, fair trade is mainstream in supermarkets and Third World Shops.  There is also an International Federation for Alternative Trade—at www.

Now that “fair trade” has become a “buzz word,” the fair-trade principles and consumer education help prevent other businesses from co-opting the term. 

Fair-trade education helps consumers understand effects of their buying choices and teaches producers their rights, so they are treated fairly and have a voice.

Sometimes corporate buyers offer to buy large quantities of sweaters for low prices—half the price of fair-trade orders.

“Nepali producers who know fair-trade principles walk out of negotiations that do not follow fair-trade practices.  They know fair-trade buyers will pay more and not make huge profits off their work,” Denise said.

She and Ric have worked with some families for a generation.

They have seen people do what they said they wanted to do: provide education for their children, including girls and young women.  They have gone to school, earned degrees and returned to their communities to educate more people.

One woman, who once had to give the money she earned weaving to her father and then to her husband, had put her loom away when her children were small.  As they grew up and she wanted income to send her daughter to school, Laxmi started working 20 years ago with the Association of Craft Producers (ACP).   She asked the ACP to help her put her loom back together in a small workshop near Kathmandu.

When Laxmi received her first pay, she cried, realizing her power.  She set up savings accounts to send her children to school.  Her daughter, Sudha, earned a master’s degree in social work and worked with the government, until she realized the most important social work would be to go back to her village and work with her mother to organize women to weave so they could earn money. Another young woman is a doctor.

“That’s powerful social change,” Denise said.  “Her acknowledging the value of her mother’s work has been incredible.”

Some customers also donate to the Girl Child Education Fund.

 “Women are capable, but need opportunities to participate,” she said.  “We are happy to help create positive change in homes, families and villages. As they do well, they have economic, emotional, social and spiritual impact.”

Fair trade is growing locally.  Lisa Brown, Nancy Nelson and Denise were among those who decided to start a fair trade store in Spokane, starting in a room at the Peace and Justice Action League office on Fifth Ave.  Global Folk Art was in several locations until Jim Sheehan offered the fair-trade store space at the Community Building, 35 W.  Main.

Other area fair-trade retailers and wholesalers include Felipe and Maria Gonzales of Moonflower Enterprises, selling Guatemalan crafts; Nancy Spada and Roger Gee of the Singing Shaman, Mexican products; Oscar and Penny Haupt of ConoSur, Chilean imports; Barbara and Terry Novak, Far East Handicrafts in Seattle; Pauline Dingman of Devtan in Northtown Mall, handmade items;  Gloria Waggoner at Rosa Gallica, boutique items;  Nancy Nydegger’s Just Trade in Pullman, crafts; Paul Fish’s Mountain Gear catalogue, gifts, and Rivers Odyssey West in Coeur d’Alene, some rowing accessories and clothes.

Ganesh Himal Trading, which now has four other part- and full-time workers, receives a shipment of 3,000 pounds of goods every two months.   That cycle provides producers—paid before the shipment arrives—a regular income.

Until two years ago, Ganesh Himal operated out of a mobile home.  Now they are in a warehouse at 13312 S. Austin Rd. Ric designed the building and had a “green builder” build it with environmentally friendly features.

Even though the U.S. economy has been down, the last two years have been the best for Ganesh Himal, Denise said.

From growing up in Covenant Christian Church and from her travels, Denise has come to appreciate the variety of spiritual traditions she has encountered in Nepal, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Zoroastrianism, as well as Christianity.

“The common spiritual practice is right livelihood, living as mentors and taking care of our own spiritual health, not telling others what to do,” she said.

“Great teachers of faiths talk of similar issues.  We are to put their teachings into practice.  The more we put them into practice and listen to needs of others, the more we realize the teachings work,” said Denise, who finds her niche in fair trade a way to live the values of many faiths.

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