You purchase a $12 handmade silk blouse from China, a bargain it seems. But what is the real cost? "Either the environment is losing out, the quality of the product misses, or the producer of the item is missing out on a fair wage." says Rachel Biel, owner of FolkArte in Chicago. "How much is the worker actually getting?" Will this income pay for food, education, health care, and housing of the worker and his or her family?We are all progressing through various stages of becoming "conscious consumers." No longer accepting items that are harmful to the environment or our health, we read labels, look for organic ingredients, and choose recycled, recyclable and cruelty-free products. Extending this to breaking the cycle of poverty, we now have the choice to purchase handcrafted items from retailers who are committed to what is known as Fair Trade.There is a growing number of stores in our area, and around the world, who belong to organizations such as the Fair Trade Federation (FTF), International Federation for Alternative Trade (IFAT) and Co-op America. Fair Trade organizations place people before profits. According to FTF, Fair Trade is defined as "an equitable and fair partnership between marketers in North America and producers in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world. A fair trade partnership works to provide low-income artisans and farmers with a living wage for their work, while ensuring that they have non-exploitative working conditions." The FTF criteria are: paying a fair wage in the local context; offering employees opportunities for advancement; providing equal employment opportunities for all people, particularly the most disadvantaged; engaging in environmentally sustainable practices; being open to public accountability; building long term relationships; providing healthy and safe working conditions within the local context; and providing financial and technical assistance to producers whenever possible.In the 1940s, the fair trade movement began in the United States with the establishment of Alternative Trading Organizations (ATOs). Founded to eliminate the exploitative "middlemen," who pay little to artisans and farmers but charge high prices, these groups help provide consumers around the world with fairly priced products from sustainable sources through just trading relationships. Many of these groups started with informal sales of products from groups they supported in their programs. Another important part of the work of these groups is sharing the artisans' or producers' stories with the consumer, thus connecting the worlds and giving history to the item.When one walks into FolkArte, the sense of a more personal relationship with the creation of the product is felt. It's as if there is a link between the producer and the consumer. Developed as an off-shoot of 4th World Artisans Cooperative, an economic development project of Uptown Center Hull House, FolkArte is located in Chicago at 3335 N. Lincoln Ave. (773-327-0010). Owner Rachel Biel is an experienced artisan who also teaches at the Textile Art Center in Chicago. She is committed to the idea of fair trade and of alternative ways of doing business. Among the items she has available are rugs from Peru, wood carvings and masks from Kenya, drums, ceramics, tapestries, jewelry, and many other creations. Biel also offers the only source of Henna Handpainting in Chicago (outside of the Indian community). Henna, which is called "mehndi" in Hindu India, is a natural plant dye. It is mixed with oils into a paste and applied to hands and feet in creative intricate designs.Biel learned this traditional art through Indian women and offers this service for between $35 and $50, depending upon the complexity of the design.Ten Thousand Villages (formerly Selfhelp Crafts), a program of the Mennonite Central Committee since 1946, is one of the largest ATOs in North America with over 200 outlets. Thousands of volunteers in the United States and Canada work with Ten Thousand Villages in their home communities. In the Chicago area three different stores are part of this organization. Susan Donoghue, manager of Ten Thousand Villages in Evanston, says the group "wanted to do something in this area to provide more choices for people who wanted to trade fairly."Donoghue tells of women in Bangladesh who marry at 14 years old. In their culture, if they are widowed or divorced, they are not allowed to work or remarry. They can support themselves through a cooperative that purchases handcrafted goods from these women. By selling these items, along with textiles from India, recycled glass from Mexico, vests, hats, ceramics, organic coffees and more than 900 other gift items, Donoghue realizes her goal of working with Third World artisans who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed. Fourth World, in Chicago, another off-shoot of the cooperative project at Hull House, is owned by artist and former interior designer, Anne Block. Everything in the store is handmade and the stories that Block loves to tell about the items are as interesting as the intricate beading and craftwork available. Block began to work with members of the Peace Corps at Hull House in 1988, helping to teach business skills to recent immigrants. This is when members of the group started local area stores. Fourth World's varied collection includes beaded jewelry from a Zulu woman's coop in South Africa, knitware from Peru and Bolivia, handpainted greeting cards, textiles (with natural dyes) from a center for the disabled in the Ivory Coast, and even hand-knit children's hats from Bosnian women in Chicago. "Everyone can make a difference by buying fairly traded products," says Fair Trade Federation Executive Director Mimi Stephens. "Fair Trade Organizations make a difference in the lives of workers by paying equitable wages and by encouraging community development. With all the attention that sweatshops have received in the news this year, people want to know where they can buy products made under safe conditions by workers who are paid fairly."In our world of mass production, villages are still a setting for individualized creations from the heart that not only provide a living wage, but also pass one's culture and skills on to the next generation. Your fair trade purchase can make a difference to Tibetan refugees, who, exiled from their homeland, can now support their family and ancient culture.In India, non-contagious leprosy creates outcasts as well. Shunned by other citizens, artisans with this disease are able to secure a living wage and meaningful work through fair trade. By forming cooperatives with the help of Fair Trade Organizations, widows in Guatemala are able to more than double their earnings and keep their children from going hungry. With Fair Trade, safe, dignified, and democratically maintained working conditions are provided, and environmentally-sound business practices which protect local resources are encouraged.Currently there are no enforced global standards to protect workers or the environment. By searching out stores and catalogs that abide by Fair Trade principles, here and overseas, and by encouraging your local stores to carry fairly traded products, you can take a stand to support low-income workers and preserve the environment. We can make a difference with each choice and each purchase we make.