Researching ethical brands is among my favorite pastimes—and getting to discover the purpose and background of a brand directly from one of its founders is especially exciting.
Trades of Hope was actually one of the first Fair Trade fashion brands I learned about, so getting to ask founder Elisabeth Huijskens questions about her journey and get an “insider peak” of this brand was really special. Plus, in this interview, Elisabeth shared her advice for individuals and aspiring social entrepreneurs, and revealed the challenges of running a Fair Trade brand.
What led up to the decision to start Trades of Hope? How did your exposure to traveling at a young age influence your perspectives on the world and your journey to starting a fair trade brand?
I was exposed to poverty and how most people around the world live at a very young age. When I was 5 years old, my family started an orphanage and school in Haiti. My mom took me there for the first time when I was 8 years old, and I was forever changed. There is a fundamental part of me that believes my privilege makes it my responsibility to help those born into poverty, and that part of me was embedded into who I am on that first trip.
I spent the rest of my childhood traveling back to Haiti multiple times a year. It was all I cared about doing, getting back on the ground with the people I loved. When I was home, I felt misplaced. I was restless to be a part of solving the injustices I saw firsthand.
While in Haiti, I recognized many awkward moments orchestrated by poverty. For example, I felt the awkwardness when a grown man on the side of the street would ask me, a child, for money simply because I was American. Because I was white, the social assumption was that I’d be wealthy. Other awkward moments were when a mother would stand in line all day at the medical clinic for medicine for her baby. After waiting in the sun for hours, 12-year-old me would hand her the medicine she needed. And it felt uncomfortable to me that a 12-year-old would be more capable of helping her baby than she was. The situation lacked dignity and felt backwards to me.
Starting Trades of Hope was an answer to so many prayers. It allowed me, and thousands of other women, to help people around the world from their homes in America. It also is an opportunity to create dignified jobs for women. We love that they can earn an income from their skills and ideas and be proud when their heads lay down to sleep at night. Their talents and intelligence are being valued, often for the first time in their lives. Starting Trades of Hope was like seeing everything in color after living in black and white. I had a feeling of “Oh, this is how things are supposed to be. This is how we alleviate poverty with dignity and sensitivity.”
The mission behind Trades of Hope is quite powerful. Could you describe your vision and purpose behind the brand?
Our purpose is quite simple: to empower women around the world through job creation and sustainable business. While working at the orphanage in Haiti, we saw mothers relinquish their children to our orphanage out of desperation. These mothers loved their children, but they couldn’t afford to provide food or shelter. The sacrifice they made where out of love. This didn’t sit right with us, so we love giving mothers in developing communities jobs so that they can keep and care for their children.
What is it like working with the artisans of Trades of Hope and getting to witness the impact that a more than just business model can have on communities around the globe?
It is a gift of a lifetime to watch the light and life return to the eyes of a woman who overcame the hardships poverty put before her. In the past, these women have endured abuse, have had to make heartbreaking choices, but are fighting to re-write their stories every day. I am constantly inspired by the strength and resilience of our Artisans. They inspire me and make me a better woman by being in my life.
How can we, as individuals, help support the growth of a better way of doing a business? What kind of impact can we have as individuals and as communities?
The most impactful way to support the people helped by social conscious business is to shop! In the case of Trades of Hope, the more people shop our fair trade line of fashion and home accessories, the demand rises. And as the demand rises, our Artisans get more work and more jobs open up for more women to find hope!
Why did Trades of Hope decide to do a “party model”?
By inviting women here in America to socially sell our fashion accessories and earn an income from their sales, we are creating a sustainable movement. We love that we offer women here the opportunity to truly partner with our Artisans around the world. This partnership is beautiful as both sides of women work and earn and grow together.
What are some unexpected challenges you’ve come across while running Trades of Hope?
There are always fun cultural surprises that come up while working with women in 16 countries around the world. One time we couldn’t get an order of accessories from India in time because there was a festival going on and cows were blocking all the roads! Another time, the products in one shipment were wrapped in a shower curtain rather than packing materials!
Working with different cultures with different levels of experience in business always has surprises. However, we would choose to do business this way over and over again because we are a people-first company. We put the long-term good of others before any short-term gain. Most brands around the world work with sweatshop manufacturers and cut corners to keep costs low. That’s not us. We will choose every irregularity or glitch to work with the women we are empowering about the world. It’s all about them and creating sustainable solutions to poverty.
Do you have any advice to aspiring or budding social entrepreneurs?
My advice would be to pursue a social cause that has a personal effect on you. I saw poverty firsthand as a little girl and, through other people’s experiences (the people I loved in Haiti, my sister who was adopted, the people I lost to poverty), it affected me personally. Maybe you’ve experienced an injustice. Maybe you’ve experienced loss. Maybe there’s something that angers you. I encourage you to not wait for someone else to come along and solve the issue because maybe no one else will. Maybe you are destined to be that person. Business is an enduring marathon and one must have a strong connection to the social cause to keep running forward strong.
Where can we follow you and Trades of Hope online? Do you have any upcoming projects or new collections in the works we can watch out for?
You can follow Trades of Hope on our Instagram and Facebook, and of course shop online at TradesofHope.com. If you’re reading this, I would love to connect with you personally on Instagram at @ElisabethHuijskens and on my blog ElisabethHuijskens.com. We have a lot of exciting releases this summer! We just released our Summer 2019 Line (you can shop it on our new website now!), and we’re releasing a Capsule Collection next month! This collection will have fashion pieces we have never carried before! I can’t wait for everyone to see, shop, and empower women in India, Cambodia, and Guatemala.
Thank you to Conscious Life & Style partner Trades of Hope for making this interview possible! As always, all editorial decisions remain my own.