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Market Store Promotes Fair Trade Principles

Donna Bollinger sells free trade artisan goods in downtown.

by Melvin E. Matthews, Jr.

Before coming to Roanoke six-and-a-half-years ago, Donna Bollinger worked with international organizations, a New York based international exchange program, and then had the opportunity to work outside the United States for a time.  During this phase of her life, she met co-operatives and groups of people worldwide who, while they possessed extraordinary talents, frequently lived in deplorable conditions.  While a divinity school student, Bollinger spent more time learning about different international groups and what they were doing.  “Some of them,” she explains, “related to aspects that would more actually reflect the different cultural and faith groups that we were working with.”

Out of these experiences, Bollinger founded Native Grace.  Currently located at 308 Market Street in downtown Roanoke, Native Grace opened its doors for business in November 2008 and, within its first year, had to relocate to its present site.  “After one year, we signed a lease to move into a space that was more than double our size.  I took a couple of months setting up, and now have been in this location for just over a year.  The community is incredibly supportive, and we very much appreciate that, and appreciate the fact that people care about where their products are coming from.”

Native Grace sells products manufactured by artisans around the world in accordance with the principles of Fair Trade.  The latter covers such issues as creating opportunities for economically and socially marginalized people, developing transparency and accountable relationships, building capacity, paying promptly and fairly (Bollinger points out that most the time individuals and co-operatives are paid prior to or as soon as their labor is completed), guaranteeing children’s rights, protecting the environment, and respecting cultural identity.

May 14 will be observed as World Fair Trade Day.  Groups that adhere to the aforementioned principles are certified by the Fair Trade Federation.  “Fair Trade,” says Bollinger, “is the opposite of a sweat shop.  There are safe working conditions for everyone.”

Diversity characterizes both the items Native Grace sells and those who purchase them.  Native Grace sells clothing, art pieces, jewelry, merchandise manufactured from 55-gallon recycled oil drums, and approximately 50 to 65 loose-leaf, organic Fair Trade teas. “I have beaded baskets from Bali that could take up to a month to actually complete the basket—very intricate detail,” says Bollinger, who adds that many of the items she sells—plates, bowls, figurines, hanging items—are made using recycled materials.

The sources for her wares come from 55 countries—among them Thailand, Haiti, Nicaragua—as well as two Fair Trade groups, 10,000 Villages and Serrv, that began after World War II.  Most often, items are purchased directly from those making them.  “In many cases, I’ll actually order products, pay for them, and then the groups begin making them, which, as you can imagine, is another long process. The money is sent directly to the people and they are paid beforehand for their work.”

The clientele for Native Grace’s merchandize encompasses people of all ages and from different walks of life—mothers with young children, single and married people, people buying for their grandchildren, etc.  Bollinger admits, “it’s rather hard to [single any one group] out.”

Future plans for Native Grace include the possibility of incorporating as a nonprofit or / and moving to an even larger space. That could transform the business into a community space for various groups to meet in. There may be tours to those countries where people producing the items the shop sells live, and expanding to have a Fair Trade tea and coffee café, while also providing additional information about Fair Trade and those involved with it.  Bollinger hopes to have more of what are called artisan-direct items that are manufactured in the United States available in the future.

As for its present location in downtown Roanoke, Bollinger is ecstatic:  “We’re just really excited about being in this location and continually having a good clientele and good number of folks coming in.”

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