Fair Trade Brand of the Month: Mata Traders

Mata Traders started after three best friends Maureen, Michelle and Jonit went on a four-month trip to India.  Maureen fell in love with the markets, textiles, colors and the people there.  After they came home, Maureen decided to make yearly buying trips to India, importing items she loves to sell at local flea markets in the U.S.

It was during her first season of selling in Martha’s Vineyard that a customer asked her if merchandise she was selling were fairly traded.  At this point, Maureen had been buying items directly from artisans, but she was also buying many things from the market place.  These places can be one of the most unregulated and exploitative channels in India. 

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Her customer’s question led her to decide to attend a Fair Trade Future Conference in Chicago.  In this conference, she learned that in India there are “self-help” groups and avenues, which impose the ethos of fair trade in their operations.  On her next trip to India, she did her research and visited a few fair trade organizations, one she found in Lonely Planet, and still one of Mata’s partner to today.  From here on, Maureen transitioned Mata’s product line to be Fair Trade.

The brand defines Fair Trade as a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect that seeks greater equity in international trade.  It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the Global South.  Fair Trade organizations (backed by consumers) are actively engaged in supporting producers, in awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practices of the conventional international trade.  Mata made it their commitment to applying the nine principles required by Fair Trade Federation in their day-to-day operation. 

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The brand’s mission is to “fashion a better world”.  Their artisan cooperatives are similar to social service agencies, they strive to end the cycle of poverty for the members and their families.  Their membership package includes health care, paid maternity leave, retirement pensions and daycare.  There are social workers on staff to assist artisans in addressing their personal needs, from opening a bank account to situations of domestic violence and dealing with HIV/AIDS.  Various classes and workshops on topics such as hygiene, nutrition, and parenting are also available.  All of the education support really made a difference in the life of the artisans.

 At Mata cooperatives, training for artisans starts with hand sewing, moving on to simple machine patterns like bags and eventually to master the sewing machine.  The garments are individually stitched in small workshops with one seamstress creating an entire garment.  Many of these garments are then carefully finished with hand embroidery in the women’s own homes. 

Women artisans who are showing leadership skills are offered the chance to become head of their sewing group or get promoted to positions like a trainer, quality checker, materials buyer or assistant production manager.  In a country as socially stratified as India, this type of social mobility in the workplace is a rarity. 

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Answering why is Fair Trade important, Maureen explains that in addition to the above reasons, one more important reason why Fair Trade is important is because it prevents child labor.  “By partnering with fair trade organizations, we ensure there is no child labor used in productions of our products.  But more than that, fair trade is preventive measure.  Every year thousands of children migrate to the mega cities of India to find work and send money back to their families. Providing a stable income to women at the poverty level is a way to combat the problem of child labor at its roots. The change can be seen not only in the life of the woman employed by the co-op, but especially in the next generation, the children that she can afford to educate.”

Growing organically one step at a time from Maureen’s studio apartment, the brand had their share of challenges in their early stage of growing.  The first challenge for Maureen was to realize that she needed help,  lucky for her, her two best friends Michelle and Jonit joined in and the three built Mata together.  From here on Maureen focuses on design and sales.  They brought in talented designers to work with Mata’s producer groups, which proves to be the key to consistently improving the fit of the line.  This continues to be a hallmark of Mata’s success. 

They noted one year their production had issues on dye and certain garments, which turned the customer’s skin to blue color.  They quickly realized that they needed a rigorous quality control procedures and fabric tasting in India.  All these growing pains became valuable lessons for the brand to make improvements along the way.

For those wishing to learn more about Fair Trade, Maureen suggested “Clothes to Die for” a documentary about the Rana Plaza tragedy on April 24th, 2013.  The Rana building collapsed and killed 1,134 garment workers, working to finish up orders for numerous popular brands.  It was the deadliest garment factory accident in history with more than half of the victims being women and children (they were in the factory’s daycare facility).   For a great listen, she suggested Conscious Chatter podcast, it opens the door to conversation about our clothing, meaning and potential impact connected to what we wear.  For books: Naked Fashion, Overdressed and MAGNIFECO.

Closing our conversation, Maureen and Mata Trade are confident that the momentum of the Fair Trade movement will continue to accelerate.  “Consumers are questioning the fast fashion phenomenon and demanding greater transparency in the fashion supply chain, in part because of tragedies like the 2013 Rana Plaza.  It’s so exciting to see larger companies like Patagonia, Prana and Athleta joining long time-supporters like Eileen Fisher in incorporating fair trade methods into their supply chains.”  


Lolo Santosa