When our founder Maureen started Mata, she had two best friends, Jonit and Michelle, by her side on a ’round the world trip. While she knew those relationships would last a lifetime, it was anybody’s guess that those friends would be her business partners at a thriving fair trade fashion company over a decade later!
Jonit has worn a lot of hats both before and after officially joining Mata as the Marketing Director in 2011; she has packed orders, gone to trade shows, taken trips to India, and everything in between. A valuable resource to Mata Traders as well as the fair trade community as a whole, she has embraced her position here as Director of Sales and Social Impact. We asked her to reflect a bit on how she got involved and what she loves about working here.
1) When did your awareness and passion for fair trade start?
I actually don’t remember when I first heard of fair trade, but my awareness of global poverty and inequity started when I started traveling and living abroad after college. I saw stuff that made me realize that the world was not what I thought it was and that just wasn’t right. It was pretty eye-opening.
Following our senior year, Michelle, Maureen, and I applied for and were granted work visas to live in Australia for a year and during that time we also took the short flight to Southeast Asia and spent some time there, too. In Australia, the situation for Aboriginal Australians was shocking. Right when we got there we saw protests demanding that the government apologize for the Stolen Generations. Then we went into the outback and witnessed Aboriginal communities living in poverty as second class citizens, facing blatant discrimination in employment and education. It was like we’d traveled back in time to a pre-civil rights era. Then in Southeast Asia we walked through cities made of shanty houses and rural areas dotted with dirt floor huts. A stark contrast to the life we came from.
2) What’s your favorite thing about your job?
Without a doubt it’s visiting our producer groups and seeing the impact that we’re having on families. I’m talking about women with a 4th grade education able to support their families and send their own children to college. Women in domestic violence situations accessing the support and the means to leave with their children. Women, who for their whole lives lived under the suppression of social roles as the inferior sex in their own homes, coming into their own and finding their voice among a community of other women. It really makes me proud that we’ve been able to go back to these women each year with bigger orders, that they can rely on us as much as we rely on them. The thing that could make my job even better would be the opportunity to take our customers to India and Nepal to meet the women who make our products. I want our customers to understand like I do the impact they make by purchasing a Mata dress.
3) You travel to India and Nepal quite frequently to visit our producers – what’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you there? What story stands out that you’ve ever heard from an artisan?
I’ve heard many stories that have made an impression on me and motivated me to work hard to generate more business for the artisans. One cool thing that I was able to do on my last trip was visit the organic cotton farmers that grow the cotton for our jersey line. I got to walk amongst the cotton fields and even pick some cotton. It was cool.
There is one artisan story that stands out. It was told to me by Choti, who is one of the women who leads a hand-embroidery group. Her village was experiencing a severe drought and the women organized to appeal to the local officials to have water trucked in. They said they would help, but nothing happened. Every time Choti and the women returned, they got the run-around and empty promises. Finally, the women decided they needed to do something more drastic. They set up a blockade on a highway road that passes the village and the women, all 250 of them, stood there and would not let traffic pass. It didn’t take long before the water trucks arrived. The thing that really struck me about the story is that Choti credits the women’s co-op for giving them the confidence to stand up for themselves. She said that without the trainings they had received, they wouldn’t have known their rights and would not have even thought to go to their local officials to voice their problems and demand action.
4) What does it mean to be an FTF member?
FTF members commit to an all-encompassing, 360 degree practice of fair trade. It’s not just about fair wages. That’s important, but there are other tenets of fair trade that are part of our business model. One example is that we pay our producer groups up front when we place our order, rather than 30 to 90 days after we receive the goods, which is the apparel industry norm. This means that our artisan groups do not have to pay out-of-pocket for the materials and that they have been paid the full price for their work no matter what the ultimate sales results. In India, it is common for merchants to only pay artisans for their handcrafts once they sell. The FTF’s holistic version of fair trade protects against this practice.
Another example is our commitment to long-term relationships with our suppliers. Our goal is to provide a sustainable and stable source of income for the artisans and that both our business and theirs flourish and grow together. Mainstream fashion brands might shop around each season to find suppliers that will give them a better price. If costs go up in China, they move to Bangladesh. That’s not how fair trade works. FTF members work specifically with groups from marginalized communities with the goal of making lasting change and breaking the cycle of poverty. That’s why we commit to partnering with our suppliers for the long-term. [You can read more about the FTF’s principles of fair trade here.]
One last thing I want to mention about being an FTF member is that we are part of a national network (USA + Canada) of wholesalers and retailers who are fully committed to these strict practices of fair trade. It’s a great feeling to be among such a passionate and hard-working community and to know that together we are making a difference in ending global poverty and bringing ethically-sourced alternatives to consumers.
5) Why do you think fair trade matters? What’s the most profound impact that fair trade has on it’s member artisans?
The accepted way of doing business in our corporate, globalized world is to drive up profits by driving down costs. Certain costs are fixed, though, like materials and transportation, so what usually suffers is labor wages. Fair trade turns that approach on its head and instead of being motivated solely by profit, fair trade businesses ensure that everyone involved in the supply chain is able to benefit.
With injustices rampant in the fashion industry as it exists now, fair trade companies like ours are offering people options that avoid problems like dangerous working conditions and child labor. It’s is giving consumers the power to change the industry. I think people feel a little powerless about their ability to affect the world and the industry, and fair trade is an accessible way to act on your ethics and make change in the world.
The biggest change we have seen is among female artisans. I think most women in India and Nepal aren’t in positions to economically support their families, provide continued schooling for their children, or to be leaders in their communities. In the co-ops we work with, members learn literacy and financial literacy, and they have access to healthcare for themselves and their families. There are democratic structures within the organization, so they vote on who among them will be the leaders, and there are opportunities for advancement to supervisor positions. Belonging to the cooperatives has had a very positive effect on the women involved.
6) What is it like being a fair trade company in Chicago?
Chicago must be the greatest city to be a fair trade company. As the biggest fair trade city in the U.S., we have so much support in this really vibrant community, so many companies with similar stories to ours, and a really excited and motivated fan base. Every year Chicago Fair Trade has a World Fair Trade Day festival downtown in the middle of a pretty corporate area of the city. So many business people in the middle of their hectic days make time to talk to us about what fair trade is and how they could get behind it. It’s always really exciting to have such a receptive and openminded response from a lot of people who were unfamiliar with fair trade before.
Keep an eye out for Jonit as she travels to trade shows around the country!