Week 7: Fair Trade Shops in Laos

Over the past three years I have been slowly working on improving my carbon footprint. I started with learning about vegetarianism and fast fashion. I try to refrain from buying products that are not ethically made or that will contribute to the deteriorating state of our earth. However, one thing that I had yet to learn much about was social enterprises and fair trade organizations. I know about fair trade products like coffee and chocolate, but I had never heard the term social enterprise or of a fair trade store that exclusively sold items that had been ethically produced and purchased. 

In order to support women and survivors of trafficking, VFI produces mak mao wine and juice, and the proceeds go back to IMG_E9306the women and girls who helped produce them. VFI also buys and sells products like sinh skirt fabric, jewelry, and scarves made by the families of survivors making VFI into a social enterprise. According to the Social Enterprise Alliance, social enterprises are businesses that “address a basic unmet need or solve a social or environmental problem through a market driven approach”. Since being in Laos we have visited many social enterprises partially to understand their business model and how it can be replicated, but also because we want to support them.

I have never been to a fair trade shop knowingly but it seems there is one on every corner in Vientiane. This week we visited Interwoven, which I can easily see becoming my favorite jewelry store. This organization sells jewelry made by local Lao women and also has a salon for Lao hairdressers. Additionally, they provide job skills training. What is great about this organization is that Interwoven’s mandate is to provide Lao women with legitimate work and a safe working environment. All of the jewelry sold is absolutely gorgeous, and I feel even better knowing that my money is going to combat exploitation and generate income for vulnerable groups of people. Unfortunately there are not many job opportunities in Laos that provide a suitable income for a family, especially for young peIMG_0964ople. As a result, some take job offers from family friends or strangers and that may lead to human trafficking or another type of exploitative work in order to provide. 

Right after visiting interwoven, we went to Herworks which supports women from ethnic minorities in Laos. I am going to be honest; Herworks is expensive even by Lao standards. But the items are well made, one of a kind products that you know are providing income for families across Laos. Some of these items are made using traditional techniques that may be lost in place of fast fashion products. When we visited the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Luang Prabang, they also had a crafts shop that held items made by ethnic minorities, and what was nice was that they included a tag that gave information on which ethnic group the item came from as well as the materials that were used to make it.

As I start to shop for souvenirs for family and friends, I will be sure to go to fair trade stores and social enterprises because not only am I contributing to a good cause, I feel a rush of excitement and anticipation imagining how happy my family and friends will also be knowing that the wonderful stories behind their gifts.