Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010...11:31 am

A chat with Mayu and a look at fair trade certification

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In the world of social entrepreneurism, case studies are our best teacher. Kate Robertson, founder of Mayu, a fair-trade certified line of hand-knit accessories, gave us a special look into how her company of 12 Peruvian artisans operates, and how she earned fair-trade certification.

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Kate Robertson lived in Peru with the Peace Corps from 2003-2005, and during that time got to know a set of artisans who now handcraft each Mayu product. Kate herself struggled to even learn how to knit, which only enhanced her appreciation for the women’s skills. “Their repertoire includes dozens of stitches and dozens of designs,” she says. “The most fascinating aspect, however, is that they are excellent at multi-tasking! They take their knitting projects with them on the road and do almost everything while knitting” — carry their kids, attend meetings, cook. “They can practically knit with their eyes closed!”

Kate said that compared to other artisans she met in Peru, these women had a motivation to learn about business, in order to turn their hobbies into a source of profit. Which is where Kate came in.

“I returned from Peru with about 100 products. I sold them to friends, and little by little, word of mouth helped me spread the word. Seeing there was a market for hand-knit alpaca items, I decided to go full-force and start Mayu,” she says. “At that point I started to pay for all of the items up front. The artisans take care of ordering the raw materials, and they send me the finished products directly from the nearest city.”

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Equipping Peruvian entrepreneurs

Mayu’s 12 artisans each play a role in the business end: President, quality control, treasurer, etc. They work directly with Kate — via email, Skype and cell phones that they have been able to purchase with the money they earn through Mayu — with no middlemen involved in the process.

“The artisans tell me what they think are fair labor prices based upon the time and difficulty level of each item. I base my retail prices on the labor costs that the women deem fair,” Kate says. Some of the women dedicate all of their time to Mayu, and some have other jobs. “However, the money these women make from knitting is greater than their monthly salaries from the other jobs,” Kate says. “The women divide up the work based upon their schedules and individual financial needs.

Kate originally decided herself what product styles Mayu would offer, but she has recently teamed up with a designer who specializes in hand-knit goods. The artisans copy the models Kate sends over, and they have been working on new designs for the fall 2010 collection for several months.

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Fair trade certification

“Becoming a member of (the Fair Trade Federation) was actually quite an involved and long process. They definitely do their due diligence!” Kate says about becoming fair-trade certified.

“The application was long and very detailed. I had to discuss the history of the business, my relationship with the artisans and my business model. Also, FTF checked a number of references who were familiar with Mayu. The entire application process lasted about six months,” Kate says.

I asked why she chose FTF over any alternatives — “FTF is the most common organization and the most well-known in the States,” she says. “FTF is unique because it works with businesses that sell not only coffee and chocolate, the most common fair-trade products, but also businesses that are focused on textiles and artisan goods.”

She said that she didn’t have to change any of her already-great practices to comply to the Fair Trade Federation’s guidelines. “I had all the fair trade practices and principles put into place before I started (the process), so I really didn’t have to make any changes. Now that I am a member, I try and educate my customers on fair trade.”

Mayu is currently supporting the opportunity for its hometown of Chicago to become a “fair trade city,” and the brand’s accolades have included being voted a DailyCandy Sweetest Things 2008 of Chicago.

Right now, the Long Rayas Alpaca Hoodie (pictured below) is on sale for $99, regularly $179, while inventory lasts.

And just for reading this article, you can get 15% off any Mayu order with coupon code FLP15.

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