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Fair Trade USA Sponsored Series

The Future of Fair Trade

West Elm Shifts Strategy Toward Fair Trade

By Sarah Lozanova

This is part of a series on "The Future of Fair Trade," written with the support of Fair Trade USA. A 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA is the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. To follow along with the rest of the series, click here.

When Jim Brett became the president of West Elm in 2010, the company was closing stores. Launched by Williams-Sonoma in 2002 and based in Brooklyn, West Elm had yet to take off. When Brett looked around at the company's line of home retail products, he was uninspired.

"It was all machine-made, all very clean and simple, and all very soulless," Brett explained. "I wanted to bring personality and soul and handmade into the business."

Over the last five years, West Elm has humanized its products, and its relationships throughout the supply chain -- entering uncharted territory in the process. In partnering with Fair Trade USA, West Elm recently announced its commitment to certify 20 percent of its product assortment by 2017, and 40 percent by 2019. It made this commitment just in time for Fair Trade month.

This will generate $1 million in Fair Trade premiums in four years, empowering factory workers to decide how this money is spent – to improve social, economic or environmental conditions.

Sourcing for impact

West Elm's Impact Sourcing Program began as a collaboration between the company's design team and artisan groups, Jennifer Gootman, director of social consciousness and innovation for West Elm, told TriplePundit in an interview. When Brett joined the brand, he saw the potential to use West Elm’s design process to preserve traditional techniques and employ crafters around the world.

This certainly isn't the soulless business mentality he encountered in 2010. This new approach embraces trust and deeper relationships with vendors, communities and ultimately customers.

"Collaborating with artisan groups gave rise to a new business strategy," Gootman explained. "We were asking: 'How can we use our supply chain and purchasing power to make an impact in the world?'"

Today, West Elm’s Impact Sourcing initiatives have grown to include its commitment to handcraft, sustainability and supply chain transparency, as well as its work with Fair Trade USA.

Ultimately, pursuing Fair Trade certification for vendors involves humanizing the supply chain -- and not just the outward West Elm appearance.

"It takes trust on both sides to build out a business relation in a long-term, strategic way," Gootman told us. "It’s all about relationships and long-term partnerships for us. As we look to consolidate our vendor base, and to mean more to fewer vendors, it's about investing in those relationships. We are asking ourselves: 'Which vendors are aligned with West Elm's values?'"

West Elm currently has six Fair Trade certified factories – five in India and one in Nepal. The company's next target is Vietnam, and it has four more factories undergoing the certification process. Gootman explained that factory certification typically takes six to 12 months, and then another eight months from when a factory is certified to when products appear on store shelves. This lag time makes the 40 percent by 2019 goal seem quite ambitious, but Gootman is confident the company will meet the target given recent progress.

"We were looking inside the business to see how we can make an impact, and we feel Fair Trade [certification] can offer that," Gootman said. "It is something that invests directly back into the relationships and ultimately the workers and their communities."

Engaging customers around Fair Trade

Investing in relationships with factory workers and their communities parallels the way West Elm is redefining relationships with its customers. For example, the company offers a home decorating service where a design experts visit customers' homes, free of charge. Design consultants will even help pick out products from other stores.

West Elm's commitment to Fair Trade also offers consumers the opportunity to shift their relationship with home retail items -- something that embodies Brett's goal to humanize the company's products.

"I was reading all these reports that were down on retail brick-and-mortar, saying it's all about online," Brett told us. "I think brick-and-mortar is an amazing opportunity to use our stores and our store staff as a vehicle to truly engage with the community in a way no other retailers are doing."

Brett wants West Elm stores to feel like community hubs, staffed by real human beings. He even instructed salespeople to think of themselves as old-fashioned merchants, enriching their interactions with customers. Communicating sustainable-sourcing strategies is another avenue for humanizing the company.

"Supply chain transparency is about how we start to talk with our customers, show what is behind the products and connect them to the [factory] workers," Gootman said. "We are investing in the people making their products, instead of making a side donation [to a community charity]."

In addition to investing in relationships across the globe, West Elm also embraces locally-made goods by partnering with community artisans and even Etsy.  "We're trying to truly scale local," Brett said. "I want West Elm to be known as the brand that does local better than anyone else in the country."

Image credit: Elvert Barnes, Flickr

Sarah Lozanova headshot

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.

Read more stories by Sarah Lozanova