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Give the gift of giving

When caught in the holiday melee looking for the perfect gift, it is commonplace to wonder how much that item costs (so your piggy bank doesn’t utter its final oink). Or what size it is (so Aunt Bertha isn’t offended by a size extra-large). Or even what it’s made out of (reindeer may be the least of Grandma’s worries if she’s allergic to the sweater you bought her).

What often doesn’t spring to mind, however, is who made the item and how much was paid to create it.

Approximately 95 percent of shoes and 83 percent of garments sold in America are made outside of the United States, according to the National Labor Committee (NLC). In an interview with Mother Jones, NLC director Charlie Kernaghan explained that while wages account for 10 percent of an item’s cost when manufactured in the States, that number is reduced to one-third of 1 percent in a developing country. He also told stories of Vietnamese women who were beaten and sexually abused while working.

That’s where fair trade organizations come in. According to the Global Exchange, a fair trade company cannot allow forced labor or abusive child labor, must utilize ecologically sustainable production methods and pay a living wage within the local context. Products made under these standards receive the “Fair Trade Certified” label from TransFair USA.

“Our policy is that everyone benefits with fair trade,” said Renee Gasch, public relations coordinator for “The artisans get a living wage in a fair-trading relationship, which means that we have a long-term relationship with them, where we will trade for an amount of time that will allow them to build their homes, educate their children and pull themselves out of poverty. It’s really about giving power to the artisans to be able to change their lives in the way they see fit.”

While some may equate “fair trade” with “more expensive,” a few companies maintain competitive prices by ignoring profits in favor of the overarching purpose. A Greater Gift is one such company.

“Because we’re a nonprofit organization, we can keep our costs lower, and that reflects in the price of the product,” Gasch said. “I think a lot of our customers are willing to pay an extra quarter for coffee that doesn’t exploit people. To them, that extra quarter is worth it.”

Popular items this season include nativity scenes unique to the area in which they are made, jewelry, teas and hand-woven baskets.

Social activists and overachievers alike can enjoy a gift from Known for its sponsored donations based on daily “hits” on its Web site, the Hunger Site’s store offers 675 fair trade products, ranging from turquoise chandelier earrings to a Chilean good luck pig statue. That’s not all, though – the company agrees to donate a certain amount of staple food with each purchase. For example, a vintage sari tote bag for $24.95 also provides 50 cups of food to needy families.

Instead of feeding the hungry, the gift-giver can choose to fund 1 percent of a mammogram to an impoverished woman, provide health services to nine children, preserve 2,290 square-feet of the rain forest or give 28 bowls of food to animals living in shelters – all with the purchase of that same sari tote. (The same applies for the purchase of any item on the Web site.)

If someone on your list seems to have everything, goods and services can be donated via the Hunger Site in that person’s name. The company will send two girls to school in Afghanistan for a year – and provide uniforms, class materials and 50 cups of food – for $20. Other packages include providing school shoes for girls in rural Africa, Infant Feeding Kits for starving children in Niger and care for a rescued Howler monkey.

For those allergic to nylon or who find synthetic fibers to be just plain itchy, bamboo clothing can be a comfortable alternative. Not only are its smoother fibers a non-irritant to skin, but bamboo fiber has been found to kill 70 percent of the bacteria it comes in contact with, according to Such clothing can be purchased locally at Shirts of Bamboo in St. Petersburg.

Co-Op America’s Green Pages lists 62 places in Florida with environmentally and socially conscious products, including fair trade goods. Of these, there are nine in the Tampa Bay area, including Aubrey’s Organics in Tampa and It’s Our Nature in Clearwater. Organic food stores also tend to offer fair trade products – look for either the “Fair Trade Certified” seal or the “Fair Trade Federation” logo to be sure.