How Much for that Fair Trade Carpet?

Oriental Rug

The New York Time’s headline “Saving the World, a Carpet at a Time,” (May 25) caught my eye.

ABC Carpet and Home is a a publicly-traded, “$80 million trend setting Manhattan department store” whose president and CEO, Paulette Cole, is socially engaged (after 9/11, she traveled to Mexico, Morocco, and Peru seeking out environmentalists, worked in anti-hunger campaigns and studied poverty in developing countries) and business savvy (“this isn’t charity; this is commerce”).

ABC made for an interesting case study in (affluent) consumer behavior for, unlike Ten Thousand Villages, it is does not carry 100 percent fairly-traded goods. In fact, a Harvard-led study found that:

"According to a study of shoppers' behavior at ABC from June to November of last year, customers willingly paid up to 20 percent more for products bearing labels that cited a positive social impact — in particular, the use of fair labor practices in their manufacture."

How many customers, I wonder, justified their purchase of a higher priced, fair trade labeled item because it was consistent with their desire to be a socially conscious shopper? The dilemma is not having to select between two similar items, one labeled ‘positive social impact’ and the other not.

My point is that a small but desirable percentage of today’s consumers are willing and able to vote with their wallets when the options to “buy jewelry made by Ugandan women afflicted with AIDS, ceramics whose proceeds go to foster schools in rural Guatemala and $1,000 gift certificates that help support Masai girls who refuse to undergo genital mutilation” are non-abstract and readily available at the point of sale.

Along this vein, the Austin store will have its chance to sharpen our “your purchase makes a difference” story when we host an oriental rug sale in August. Details to follow.