Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hot Topic: Fair Trade

Q&A with Lynn Persson, owner of Terra Experience
2140 Regent St. 231-2147.

How did you come up with the name Terra Experience?
From a Latin teacher way back; “terra” means “earth.” I worked in environmental protection for thirty-two years. Terra had meaning in that way. I am also a gardener and it had meaning in that way. I was looking for a business name and that just seemed appropriate.

What does Terra Experience sell?
The specialty is doll clothes. I sell ethnic doll clothes that fit eighteen-inch dolls—folk art, textiles and other things from Guatemala and the markets of the world.

When and why did you start the business?
1999. It started small, as a hobby business to help some friends down in Guatemala who needed money for school and other things. My husband and I went down for vacation and fell in love with the country, and got to know some weavers and their families.

Did you have retail experience previously?
No. My husband owns Stony Hill Antiques and Gallery on Regent Street. He has had a retail business and has been kind enough to give me a corner of his shop and sell my doll clothing. We have independent businesses, but support each other.

What do you look for in what you sell?
I try to maintain the cultural traditions, which is one of the things I liked about the doll clothing. Each village in Guatemala has its own weaving styles. Each of the doll clothes I have represents a different weaving village. Rather than having them bend their traditions to meet the style needs of us Americans, I’m making use of our love of dolls and beautiful textiles and taking that to understand their culture. Obviously, I’m also looking for things that will sell and are attractive.

Judging from your website and talking to you, it sounds like Terra Experience has a higher goal than just selling doll clothing. Explain that.
When I started this, I defined three bullet points: Make ethnic doll clothing that fit American Girl and other sixteen-, eighteen- and twenty-three-inch dolls; give kids of all ages the chance to experience other cultures with the dolls and toys they love; and support sustainable development, fair trade, the local artisans, their communities and the environment.

Where do you source things from?
Primarily, going down to Guatemala once a year. I order the doll clothing from the weavers a year before and pay "anticiipo." [I also work with] group cooperatives and nonprofits that I’ve made friends with down there.
[You meet] people you really start to care about and it’s something you really want to share. I was fortunate that when I just started thinking about this [business], Shorewood Hills elementary school was studying Mayan culture. A friend who is an art teacher [at Shorewood] asked me to sell my items at a library sale. I said “Sure,” and it was a success, which indicated to me people were interested in this kind of thing.

What’s your most popular item?
The doll clothing. I also sell books about the cultures and books about weaving. My customers have asked for things that will fit themselves and their daughter, so I sell a lot of full-size textiles now. Everything is made on a handloom, a back-strap loom or a floor loom by the weavers.
I also provide information about the weaver, their families and their culture. I have information on some good nonprofits and cooperatives that I share with my customers.

Where can shoppers go to get information about the fair trade movement?
There are a couple of different groups [that certify fair trade]. One is the Fair Trade Federation ( They have a process for certifying fair trade artisans and groups. I am in the process of becoming a member and hope to be in the future.
There are also a number of groups that certify fair trade products like coffee. Just Coffee here has a lot of good information on coffee. Willy Street Co-op has list of places that sell fair trade here in Madison. I put that list on my website and they ended up adapting it.
I am a proud member of Co-op America (, which focuses on green and socially responsible businesses. They have a buyer’s guide and have different guidelines they use to evaluate fair trade.
I’m proud that Terra Experience was identified as one of “top ten green toys” by Co-op America before Christmas. What I have done at this point is work with the weavers and seen how they weave. The weaving itself is sustainable. It’s not a sweatshop with lots of toxic fumes coming out. It’s primarily a woman trying to make money and taking care of her family in her home.

As shoppers, we hear about the green movement, and I’m wondering how the fair trade movement fits in with that. It seems like it does, but I’m confused as to exactly how it fits in.
Green involves a number of things, and one means being a socially responsible business. You can be green in terms of reducing your impact on the earth, and you have to look at the impact that you have on other people on this earth.
The broader look of green is socially responsible, sustainable development. Part of that is asking, “Are the people you’re buying from making a living wage, and are they producing products in an environmentally sustainable manner?”

What can people do to buy responsibly or buy green?
If people look at comparably priced products and buy the one that supports an individual and their families rather than a big corporation's profit, it sure would help. But it’s also important that some of the big corporations are trying to be green.
With green you’re looking at the whole product. How is it produced; what are the contaminants; how does your own use of the product affect the earth? When the product is disposed of, how does that affect the earth?
It’s really hard. I worked in environmental protection for thirty-two years and when I first went down to Guatemala, I hoped to do environmental work down there but instead I felt that I could help them economically.
But instead I felt that I could best help the women I had met by finding fair trade markets for their beautiful weavings. They were trying to buy school supplies for their children, which cost the same or more than in Madison. Yet the average daily wage for a field laborer is five to seven dollars and less for a woman. Many children only received a couple years of primary education. Now having established long-term relationships with weaving families and various groups I am able to also support scholarships and promote environmental projects that I hope will have a long term beneficial impact on their environment and health as well.
I’m more likely to have an impact on the people economically, so I can figure out what’s happening and then I can support the areas that have a long-term impact.

(Photos above: Maya Traditions doll (left, top photo), $20–$40; Doll dresses, $20–$28; Mayan embroidered folk art tapestries, $45)

Other fair trade shops:
A Greater Gift,
2701 Monroe St. 233-4438.
Fair Indigo, 570 N. Midvale Blvd. 661-7662.
Fair Trade Coffeehouse, 418 State St. 268-0477.
Just Coffee,


Anonymous said...


Co-op America said...

Hi! Thanks so much for this article about fair trade and Terra Experience - a lovely business.

Here's that article on the top 10 green toys for 2008:

Find more green, socially responsible businesses on our National Green Pages, sign up for our free e-newsletter & check out our many programs!

Jocelyn Allen
Online Campaign Outreach Intern
Co-op America

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