After five months of feeling physically ill and depressed, and after seeing many doctors and leaving with no answers, Erin Brown’s health took...
1. How would you quantify and qualify Mustard Seed’s international impact?
Mustard Seed works with more than two dozen businesses and organizations that have direct relationships with the individuals making our product. These organizations are located in impoverished areas all over the world, from Nepal to Bolivia, Uganda to Denver. Because we are committed to purchasing what we consider fairly traded items, we know these products are made by individuals who were marginalized in some way. These organizations are committed to providing sustainable and fair wages, safe working conditions and so much more. Because this support is not given as a handout, the safe work and respect-filled working relationships provide lasting change. Since we opened in 2008, Mustard Seed has sold more than $1 million in product, supporting thousands of individuals around the world.
2. What’s the story behind Mustard Seed?
When we were first naming Mustard Seed, we had so many ideas. We decided on Mustard Seed Fair Trade because of what a mustard plant does in a garden. It starts very small and becomes extremely influential amongst its plant neighbors, to the point where it is very difficult for a gardener to contain it. We knew when we started the organization that we were not only small but also inexperienced; everything about what we were doing was a bit of an experiment. We were confident that with care, our organization would become impactful and really effect change for individuals in our community and abroad.
3. How do you source the items you sell, and how do you vet fair-trade claims?
Mustard Seed sources items from non-profit organizations and small business that are generally based in the United States but work directly with groups of artisans in countries around the world. The vast majority of organizations we purchase from are members of a fair trade-qualifying organization, usually the Fair Trade Federation. We are fairly particular about the look and quality of product we carry in the store, so we do what we can to hunt down and curate all of our product so customers have endless beautiful items to choose from. On top of certification, we keep detailed information on each of our vendors based on the nine standards for fair-trade certification set by the Fair Trade Federation. We want to be able to support small organizations that cannot afford certification but also need to guarantee to our customers that the product they are purchasing makes lasting impact.
4. How has an ever-increasing interest in fair trade and social responsibility affected your business?
Simply put, it has had a very positive effect on our sales. Our customers are more knowledgeable now than they were five years ago. This also creates a very real challenge for us. It is very important that when we present a product for sale, it meets the standards we use for fair trade and ethical production. However, there are significantly more businesses selling into the fair-trade market that use terms similar to fair trade or might not label themselves at all or are close to meeting our standards but not quite there. Many of these businesses sell beautiful product that our customers would love. We are constantly challenging ourselves to make decisions that according to business standards might not be good decisions, but we make them to keep our customers trust and help people navigate the increasing number of businesses that are benefiting from simply marketing their product as fair trade but not holding themselves to appropriate standards.
5. What big changes have you seen that have affected your business the most?
The biggest change since 2008 that has affected our business the most is the growth of Columbia as a whole and the growth of downtown. Our business has grown simply because of our location, which has been wonderful. Also, people really are more familiar with the harm that mass production is causing around the world, both socially and environmentally, and are more receptive to making the choice to buy ethically produced cards, clothing and gifts because of that knowledge. It’s easy to be discouraged and frustrated when you learn how many people are enslaved around the world or how many are underemployed, work in sweatshops or deal with abuse in the workplace. Our work gives everyone hope and makes it seem possible that a better, safer, more sustainable future is possible through our purchasing.