March 5, 2012 | Innovation, Economic Opportunity

The New Retail Therapy

Ethical shopping benefits consumers and producers too.

By Anna Louie Sussman

NEW YORK -- Chances are, you’ve indulged in a little “retail therapy” at some point in your life: you’ve countered a setback at work with a new pair of shoes, or left the makeup counter happily clutching a bag full of products for a brand new look.

As Daphne Merkin has written, “The idea of adding something new to your repertory of belongings … seems to suggest by some process of osmosis a change bigger than itself: Life might open up with you in possession of this new item, or you yourself might be ever so slightly revised and adopt a whole new worldview.”

But how therapeutic is it, really? According to studies, giving money to charity actually has a more significant and longer-lasting impact on happiness than spending money on acquisitions. In 2008, researcher Elizabeth Dunn published a paper in Science found that spending more of one’s income on others – what she termed “prosocial spending” -- predicted greater happiness than spending on one’s self.

Now, there’s a way to do both. With ethical shopping, a new handbag or bracelet can truly lead to “a change bigger than itself” – for the buyer, and the producer. Socially conscious fair trade companies, such as Bajalia and Same Sky, link consumers to artisans in developing nations, providing consistent revenue for the artisans and consistently gorgeous products for their customers. Unlike fair trade products of past, which stressed their social mission, these new companies put aesthetics and altruism on an equal footing.

A former executive with experience in fashion, advertising and banking, Debbie Farah was inspired to launch Bajalia Trading Company, a non-profit company, after meeting a group of women textile artisans in India in 2003.

“They were doing the most incredible embroidery, but there was no one to buy it,” she said. “And I knew that there are certain art forms that would go away if there wasn’t a market for them.”

Farah began buying them and selling them informally to colleagues and friends. Six years later, she launched a for-profit sister company, Bajalia International Group, to meet a growing demand. Bajalia’s jewelry line launched on the Home Shopping Network on March, International Women’s Day, in 2011, and now accounts for sales of more than 16,000 pieces quarterly.

Farah uses her background in design and fashion to enable artisans in Afghanistan, Turkey, Uganda and elsewhere to create handmade products that reflect local craft traditions but will appeal to fashion-conscious customers in the United States.

“In the past, I don’t think fair trade was done right. I used to work at Neiman Marcus, and all of my girlfriends are from that high-fashion world,” said Farah. “We would have been happy to purchase a fair-trade product -- if it was beautiful.”

But the mission matters too. Bajalia’s website features the stories of their artisans: women who often have little education or work experience, but who are gifted craftswomen and businesswomen. Bakht Nazira, for example, has built up her jewelry business and now employs her husband and others in her community to make necklaces and bracelets out of lapis and metalwork. At the Bajalia store in Winter Park, Florida, the walls are plastered with photographs of the artisans, as well as statistics and facts about gender inequality around the world. As the women shop, the men who have accompanied them get an education.

“Men typically stand there looking at the wall, and they’re drawn to the numbers and statistics,” she said. “And when they read the statistics, they are just shocked. They look at our salesgirls and say ‘Is that true? Is that stuff true?’”

This process is one aspect of what she calls Bajalia’s “triple bottom line.” In contrast to the corporations she worked at in the past, Bajalia answers not only to its investors, but also to its producers, whom they have promised fair and sustainable income, and its customers.

“Many of our well-to-do customers are living in a world where they don’t necessarily know what the rest of the world faces,” she said. “It’s about moving consumers to a point of knowledge, helping them know who the producers are, and see that their purchases matter and can change the world.”

Francine LeFrak, an award-winning film and theater producer who launched Same Sky jewelry in 2008, has seen this impact for herself. She works with nearly a hundred women in Rwanda and Zambia, many of them HIV-positive or survivors of the 1994 genocide, to produce bracelets made of delicate glass beads. Over 30,000 of the bracelets have been sold so far online and at trunk show events, creating a ripple effect both in the U.S. and in Africa.

“They can now buy mattresses for their kids to sleep on, or send their kids to school in uniforms, or move out of government housings. One has a business with her daughter selling potatoes,” she said. “Sometimes the simplest thing is so enormous.”
She pays them 15 to 20 times the average local wage, resulting in a business model that she describes as “low-profit, for-benefit.”

“Our profit margins are very low,” she said. “But the idea is for them not just to subsist, but to thrive.”

Customers thrive too, when they know how their dollars are working and who they are reaching. Research suggests this can work at the corporate level too: a study from the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business found that shoppers with high ethical expectations of corporations were happy to pay a premium for product that had been ethically produced. 

LeFrak’s experience bears out this research; she often gets notes from people telling her how much more valuable the jewelry is than their regular purchases.  

“People are so touched by the jewelry and by these heroic women in Rwanda and Zambia,” she said. “They feel the energy of how good it makes you feel to wear one of the bracelets, and to connect with those women. It feels more correct, more authentic. It doesn’t feel like other things in your closet.”

LeFrak, who is also a noted philanthropist, believes this model of women customers empowering women producers is more effective than charity, and not only because it is more economically sustainable.

“It’s so much more powerful to have an object be ribbon to the cause, than to send a check,” she said. “That object is with you, it’s something you can touch, that you can wear, that reminds you that you can do good in the world by buying something that’s ethically produced.

Farah recalled a woman who called into a Home Shopping Network program she hosted for Bajalia’s jewelry. The woman was so moved by the stories of the women artisans that Farah herself nearly wept on the air.

“She was crying about how rewarding it was to be buying these products,” Farah said. “She is not only helping heal these women around the world, but she is healing herself at the same time. She is finding her own purpose.”

That mutuality, Farah said, makes ethical shopping a true form of retail therapy.

“When we connect women to women, the healing happens on both sides.”

Anna Louie Sussman is writer and editor for Women in the World Foundation, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.