Happy Featured Friday everyone! Today you get to meet Brandon. He is the founder of Tiagu, a fair trade company that sells accessories and decor. He is more than a mover and a shaker, and you need to meet this guy.

LC: How did you get involved in Fair Trade? When did you come up with the idea to sell home decor and fashion accessories?

BN: Since I was 5 years old I participated in The Christmas Project in Santa Cruz County. Ever year Gladys Anderson, a true saint, would go out to the migrant farm camps and get gift requests from every child and parent; we would then get all the gifts, wrap them and deliver them on Christmas Eve. This is when I first learned about the disparity of working and living conditions in our own country. The kids would often requests jackets, not toys. 10 people could be living in a one bedroom “apartment”; walls were falling, roofs leaking and the only place kids had to play was the mud.

In High School I took a global studies class and I realized how much worse it was in other parts of the world. My first really interest in trade was senior year of High School; I was in Journalism and wrote an article on the slave labor conditions that exist in some of the factories where our clothes are made. In college I majored in Politics studying the UN, IMF, World Bank and other non-governmental organizations; where I first learned about Fair Trade. I grew to understand that much of the poverty in the rest of the world is largely caused by the disparity in trade agreements between the rich countries and the poor ones. Most of the products we buy have changed hands multiple times; each time means less money for the person who actually made the product.

I wanted to create a store that connected the people making the products to the people selling them. I started to look for avenues to purchase products as directly from the artisan as possible. This way I could ensure that they were being paid well, had good working conditions and the product was being made in a sustainable way. The problem was that I had no way of verifying what the person across the world was telling me was true. So I started looking into Fair Trade more and discovered that the Fair Trade movement and groups stood for the same principles of trade as I did, what the World Fair Trade Organizations calls the 10 Standards of Fair Trade. Fair Trade is about empowering the artisan to lift themselves out of poverty and empowering the consumer to purchase something that they know was made in a fair and moral way. The large majority of the artisan groups that have been certified as following the 10 Standards of Fair Trade make handicrafts, which tend to be home décor and fashion accessories. So the type of products were kind of chosen by default.

LC: I noticed that Tiagu abides by the 10 Standards of Fair Trade. They are great guidelines to operate under. Have you noticed other companies adopting similar standards with the purpose of being more socially ethical? Any advice for organizations that are considering the move towards becoming more saint-like aka Tiagu-like?

BN:  There are a few dozen Fair Trade e-commerce websites and a few Fair Trade stores scattered about the country, but Fair Trade is still in its infancy.  Some larger chains are starting to sell a few products they claim were made in a “fair and sustainable”.  Macy’s in Union Square was selling woven baskets from Rwanda under the mantra of

something similar to Fair Trade.  Whole Foods has come out with a line of products that is a take on Fair Trade.  Pottery Barn came out with a few “eco” products.  It is great that these companies are trying to offer products made in a more fair way, but by choosing to distinguish some of their products as “fair and sustainable” or “eco”, it is kind of an admission that most of their other products aren’t.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say saint-like…  The most important thing is to be conscious of how your actions affect the environment, your employees and the people who you are buying your products or services from.  If you ask questions, trust your gut and act with empathy you will set up your organization to be more “saint-like”.

LC: What countries do you get the bulk of your products from? Are you visiting any of them soon and do you need someone to carry your luggage?

BN:  We get our products from all across the World, but this next year we are going to be focusing on products from Africa.  We have Mango Wood products from Thailand, Bamboo products from Vietnam, Scarves from Eastern India and Cambodia, grass and natural fiber products and candles from Swaziland.  I am going to Africa in February.  The point of the trip is to find new products and document the stories of the artisans so that we can bring them to our customers.  Kenya has more certified Fair Trade organizations than any other country in the world so I am going to spend at least a week on a Fair Trade tour of the country.  Then it is off to South Africa for a couple of days, Swaziland for a couple of days and then probably one other country yet to be determined.  I don’t need anyone to carry my luggage, I am pretty strong, but a photographer/camera-person would be very nice.

LC: Done deal, I own a camera or two. Okay, crystal ball time, what is the grand vision for Tiagu?

BN:  There are going to be three parts of Tiagu.  The first part is going to be a non-profit that invests a portion of our revenues back into the communities that we buy the products from.  For example in December a tornado hit Swaziland destroying the house of the artisan groups “grandma”, we donated money to help rebuild her house.  The second part is Tiagu.com, which is going to be a multi-media e-commerce website where people can learn anything and everything they would ever want to know about the products they are buying.   The third part is going to be a chain of Fair Trade stores that are going to be in every major metropolitan area in the country, starting with San Francisco.

Awesome! We need more people in the world like you. Thanks Brandon!