It all started a few years ago when Mark Weber was at his local Trader Joe’s grocery store in America. He and his now-wife and business partner, Alana Hitchcock, were at checkout one day buying their usual brand of fair trade coffee, which costs about 70 cents extra than the regular kind.
“At that moment it dawned on me,” recalls Weber. “What does that label, fair trade, even mean? How does my purchase affect the world? And wouldn’t it be cool if when you go buy a product you could actually see the human on the other end of that transaction?”
Today, Weber and Hitchcock, who met while working for a government fellowship programme in California, have turned their past skills and experience (Weber in ethics investigations and homeland security, Hitchcock in climate change and sustainability planning, both in international relations) to create a unique social business. It’s called Trade Monkey, and Chiang Mai is its home base.
“We chose Chiang Mai because of the wealth of artisans and the low cost of living,” says Hitchcock. Furthermore, as any Chiang Mai expat knows, people back home are always quite envious of all the cool stuff we can buy here. Trade Monkey’s goal is to act as a bridge between artisans and NGOs in developing communities and international customers looking for unique handmade products. With headquarters in both Chiang Mai and America, they are fully present at both ends of the transaction, helping to grow the businesses of their suppliers while at the same time cultivating a growing market in the west.
Scroll through their colourful online shop and you’ll find a bounty of beautifully designed items, from funky brass wire wrap necklaces to handmade silk Christmas ornaments. Each product is listed alongside a map of where it came from and a detailed bio of its maker.
“Our products speak for themselves but at the same time we want to tell people the stories that go with them,” says volunteer Laurie Hargreave. “In this age, our access to information is unbelievable,” adds Weber. “Transparency rather than labels is the way of the future.”
Currently, most of Trade Monkey’s supply partners are right here in northern Thailand, such as Warm Heart Foundation, a nonprofit that creates much-needed employment for villagers in Phrao, along with a host of other services including a children’s home, education access, and public health initiatives. The local women participating in their growing microenterprise project make tote bags, yoga bags and laptop cases out of upcycled rice bags.
“Most of the organisations we work with are already making products but have a hard time bringing them to a western market,” says Alexa Golembeski, Trade Monkey’s Chief Product Officer and an early partner in the business. “We try to provide a missing piece of the puzzle.”
The Trade Monkey team brings a collective background of expertise in marketing, design, fashion, sustainability and international relations to provide what Golembeski calls a full service “advisory partnership” with the communities, organisations and artisans they work with. Their goal is not just to bring the goods to a wider audience, but to help the suppliers develop products that will appeal specifically to western trends.
Their team in America is in charge of market research and finding pre-existing markets interested in long-term partnerships. One of their recent projects, for example, is selling school-specific handmade graduation scarves to American universities. Hitchcock says the response has been inspiring. “Everyone knows that change needs to happen in terms of how we buy things and how we make things, and they want to be a part of that.”
At the same time, Trade Monkey works closely with its suppliers to assess their own unique needs, and to find ways to make their work sustainable in the long run, even if that means providing extras like equipment, basic first aid pamphlets, proper waste disposal techniques and transportation. “We try to find quick fixes for the short term while focusing on long term community development to support growing, sustainable livelihoods,” adds Hitchcock.
Since its inception one year ago, which began with a RocketHub crowdfunding campaign (the site’s first to garner donations from all seven continents – including Antarctica!), Trade Monkey has grown steadily while maintaining strong connections with its international team of suppliers, customers and vendors. “We’re not a charity,” says Weber. “We are here to fundamentally change the purchasing process. Having information means making smarter choices, and that can change the way an entire industry behaves.”