Motherhouse: beyond Fair Trade

October 1st, 2009 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

The new Iriya store

The new Iriya store

There isn’t much that individual consumers can do to right the economic balance between the developed world and the developing world. Promoting sustainability in poorer regions basically amounts to paying local producers higher prices for products they export than what they are getting, something that multinational companies, which usually do the exporting, are not prone to doing. Given the gulf of distribution that separates the average housewife in Chiba and the average tea plantation worker in Sri Lanka, there’s very little the former can do to directly help the latter.

Except buy Fair Trade-labeled products. Various world organizations certify producers who guarantee, among other things, that their employees earn a decent working wage and give them some say in the operations of the farm or factory. Thus, when that housewife buys some black tea at her local Ito Yokado with a Fair Trade label on it, she can feel assured that more of her money is going to the people who produced it rather than a host of middlemen-multinationals.

But not always. NHK recently ran a Danish documentary about tea plantations in Sri Lanka and India that showed just how difficult it is. The filmmakers found that many Fair Trade-certified plantations did not extend benefits to workers, and that local officials charged with inspecting the plantations for the certifying bodies weren’t relaying this information, if they were relaying it at all.

Fair Trade is a system based on trust, but there are just too many opportunities along the line for that trust to be betrayed; which is why a company like Motherhouse is so important. Founded by 27-year-old Eriko Yamaguchi, Motherhouse manufactures jute bags in Bangladesh and then sells them in Japan. The workers in Bangladesh benefit directly from the sales in Japan because there are no middlemen; thus they have more of an effect on their own destinies as workers. Yamaguchi mainly acts as the quality control valve, designing and developing the merchandise, and then supervising its distribution in Japan. She has attracted a huge fan base of women from a wide age-range who appreciate her merchandise, and she has been very successful. She will soon open a store in Boston.

Much of this success has been due to the enormous amount of publicity her sustainability business model has attracted. Almost every Japanese newspaper, NHK and even foreign press like the New York Times and Businessweek have covered Yamaguchi. Her story is worth reading, and definitely worth thinking about. And while Yamaguchi admits that it’s the “story” that has attracted attention to her work, the main reason she is successful is the quality of the goods. Buying something for the purpose of helping poor people is all well and good, but in the end it can be “meaningless,” in her words, if the buyer wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. Buying something because you really want to buy it not only helps those poor people but rationalizes what they are doing from a professional standpoint. That’s how they leave poverty.

Two weeks ago, she opened a new store near Iriya Station in Taito Ward, Tokyo. In addition to her jute bags and accessories from Bangladesh, the store also sells a new line of bags made in Nepal called Maitighar. Yamaguchi was at the opening, of course, and she said Motherhouse is expanding daily. She’s even been invited to speak at Harvard next month.


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