How to Start a Fair Trade Arts & Crafts Import Business

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A loom with yarn on it.
A loom with yarn on it. (Image: RonyZmiri/iStock/Getty Images)

The goal of fair trade is a business where everyone wins. A fair-trade crafts importer buys goods -- carvings or jewelry, for instance -- at a fair price, rather than squeezing their overseas partners for every dime. Most importers sell the goods for comparable prices to other imports and accept a smaller margin on each sale. To succeed, your business has to comply with legal requirements for importers. You also have to meet the standards imposed by fair-trader certification groups.

Business Options

If your real passion is for traveling overseas and dealing with artists directly, you might be happiest working as a wholesaler for American retailers. That lets you focus on the buying and shipping, rather than selling to customers. If you want to go into retail yourself, you need to find space in a community that will buy your products and where customers think it's worth paying extra for fair trade items. You can try selling online, without a bricks-and-mortar store, but you'll still need a warehouse to store your imported goods.

Finding the Crafts

There's a huge world of native crafts and arts out there, and you can't import all of it. Before starting your business, decide whether you want to offer, for example, South American jewelry, African sculptures or Balinese art. You should consider both what will sell in the United States and what kind of crafts you're passionate about selling. Also consider export restrictions: some countries ban craft exports if the items are, say, religious, or made with elephant ivory. You either have to be comfortable dealing with the country and culture you're contracting with, or find a trustworthy representative who can speak the language and strike the deals.

Supply Chains and Certification

The supply chain for native arts is often complex. It involves the people who mine or make the raw materials, the craftspeople, subcontractors and the shippers. When you apply for certification, you'll have to show you treat everyone in the supply chain fairly -- good working conditions, fair pay and more. Before you set up your chain, talk to a certification group such as Fair Trade USA or Fair Trade International about their requirements. Build your supply chain with the requirements in mind, then apply for certification. If you pass muster, you can label your goods as "certified fair trade."

Managing Paperwork

Any importing business is heavy with paperwork. If you're not comfortable tracking shipping receipts and invoices, you need a partner who is. Your shipment has to pass through U.S. Customs, which requires you or your agent to file entry documents for the goods and wait on Customs approval. If you import products made from animal skins or shells, you may have added paperwork with other agencies. To stay legal, learn the requirements and follow them to the letter.

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