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Child Labor and Work Ethics

Recently, I was filling out a portion of the application for renewal of our Fair Trade Federation certification.  One of the questions read as follows:  “How often does your business evaluate children’s roles in production?” It was clear to me that this question was leading to the defense against practices of children being forced to work and thereby unable to be children. Children who can play and go to school and relax on a lazy day in the sun.  You can bet that It’s Cactus is firmly in that camp. Kids should be kids!

Certainly there are endless heart-breaking examples of children being treated as little more than slaves, forced by economic circumstance to labor long hours at the expense of their education, and furthermore, their childhood. I have blogged about such children in Haiti, who suffer under the restavek system. (Sept. 13,2013  The Price of Poverty:  300,000 Cinderella and No Ball.) They are children of poor families “given” to be raised by wealthier “foster families” of dubious intent.  In exchange for labor, a restavek child is supposedly afforded the opportunity for an education. All too often, however, that exchange for the child translates into exploitation and abuse. Though we have never seen this practice in our own Haitian experiences, we stand in total opposition to it.  In fact, our work in Haiti is undertaken to elevate economic conditions so that such practices are no longer even considered to be possible solutions to a problem. We strive to make them unthinkable.

Having said that, however, we are happy to see children given tasks and responsibilities for which they may or may not be  monetarily compensated as a means of cultivating a strong work ethic that will serve them well throughout their years. Coming home after school and flattening out a few pieces of metal in their father’s workshop is a healthy means of accomplishing this end. In fact, Casey is rather adamant that her own daughter pitches in for It’s Cactus. And she does, working in the booth at shows during the summer and writing out price tags after school. In Casey’s words:  “You could call it child labor, I suppose, but I prefer to think of it as good parenting. Its an opportunity for her to learn and to participate. To develop a sense of responsibility, satisfaction and pride in the work that she has done. It helps our business and working together becomes a shared family experience. It’s good for all of us!”


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Savvy Shoppers Ask Questions and We Have Answers on Fair Trade

Watching a video of how Haitian metal art is madeWe are back from the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society’s Flower Show and happy to report that it was another successful run.  Despite snowstorms and every sort of precipitation that Mother Nature could cause to fall during the ten-day event, the Flower Show participants proved their mettle and pluck and came in great numbers to revel in the beauty of the event….and to SHOP!

The It’s Cactus crew was pleased to welcome old friends and new to our brightly-colored signature booth.


Over and over, we shared the story of how our metal sculptures are made from recycled oil barrels by village artisans in Haiti.  It is always gratifying to know how important our practice of Fair Trade is to increasing numbers of shoppers who not only want to buy hand-crafted art, but also want their purchases to support a greater good.  Time and again we were asked, “How much goes back to the artists?” and we were always proud to say that, “None goes back because they have already been paid 100 percent up front.”

This response may sound flippant and seem like it evades the question, but it is actually an important point. By trading in this manner, the artists do not have to make initial outlays for materials and labor out-of-pocket and wait for the return on their investments. Such lags, while endurable in strong economies, are virtually untenable in Haiti. Paying up front eliminates that stress and financial burden for the artist, and in many cases, makes trade possible at all. In fact, paying 100 percent up front far exceeds the amount required by the Fair Trade Federation of its members.

Moreover, prices are negotiated with the artist for each design that we purchase. The artist is a full participant in that decision-making process. Always the discussion includes questions such as, “What do you need to make on this piece so that it is sustainable for you?”  “What can we do to price this piece equitably for you and attractively for our customers?” Along these same lines, we exchange ideas about design, quality control, and consistent flow of output. In so doing, our experience with the marketplace and theirs about the creative process becomes shared knowledge.

Like the flowers, it’s a beautiful thing….


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Busting Fair Trade Myths

Weather-proofing metal art from HaitiIt’s Cactus, we are happy to report, has recently been re-certified by the Fair Trade Federation for another year. The Fair Trade Federation requires that participating businesses conform to strict guidelines and verification requires a huge amount of effort annually, including a mountain data entry and submitting another mountain of online forms. However, it is important to us that we are recognized as being in compliance, and we “wear” our certification proudly. We know that many people prefer to purchase Fair Trade products – we do too! We also know that many people are not clear about the meaning of Fair Trade, and that many misconceptions surround its meaning. With that in mind, here are a few of myths that need busting:

Fair Trade is a fancy phrase for charity. Charity is a hand-out. Fair Trade is a hand up. Both have their purposes. Charity is an excellent short-term solution for many problems. Responses to natural disasters, for instance, are perfect targets for charitable giving. Charity is not, however, a long-term solution for perpetual poverty. in fact, it can have the completely undesirable consequence of creating perpetual dependency. In order to rise above dire economic straits, people need to help themselves, and that is where Fair Trade comes in. By treating producers as trading partners, by according them dignity and respect, by allowing them to participate in profit-earning, by leveling the playing field so that they can compete in the marketplace, Fair Trade practice offers the hand up that leads producers, ultimately, to being able to stand proudly on their own two feet.

Latin American textiles are made according to centuries of traditionFair Trade takes jobs away from Americans. In this political climate where “Making America Great Again” is a heavily-favored populist theme, it is important to demonstrate that Fair Trade is not crippling America’s workforce. In most cases, Fair Trade products, whether they are agricultural – such as cocoa and coffee – or artisanal – such as our metal sculptures from Haiti – are not, nor have they ever been produced in the US. They are unique to the countries from which they originate, often following years of indigenous tradition, and they are products desired by US consumers in part because of their exotic quality. There has always been a market in the US for imported goods; indeed it is folly to think that America can or should produce everything under the sun. American jobs are not being destroyed or “moved overseas” as a result of Fair Trade. These are jobs that were never here in the first place.

Fair Trade products are simple craft items that anyone could make. Not true! Particularly when applied to folk art items. Our marvelous Latin American textiles are excellent examples. These are handmade pieces that follow generation upon generation of tradition. Many of the centuries-old patterns worked into these textiles represent very specific origins, with mystical elements that might escape the first glance of an untrained eye. The artist starts  training as a young child and it takes years to attain mastery. Though the work may be unrefined, it is in no way “simple.”

Friends of ours, “Fair Trade Winds” have a terrific website that explains all of this and more. Scroll down to the bottom of their homepage and click on anything under the category “Learn.” They provide a wealth of information, and demonstrate through beautiful photos and words why Fair Trade is a wonderful thing!


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

How Much Money Goes Back to the Artists?

Casey, the indispensable Franz, and Jean Rony in Jean’s workshop. Discussions in progress!

If we’ve heard that question once, we’ve heard it a thousand times.  And it’s a good one. The quick response is, “None goes back, because we pay 100 percent up front. They get paid first.” But that isn’t really a complete or direct answer, is it? (Yeah, I know, I kind of dodged it.) Still, it’s a hard question to answer because there isn’t one “absolutely all-the-time” firm, formulaic response. (I think I just saw you roll your eyes…)

Let me start by saying that we negotiate the price for every new piece we order.  Artists tell us what they would like to get, and we consider what end price the market will bear. If we can compensate them at their asking price, cover our costs, and turn their pieces over quickly in the marketplace, we’ve got the magic number. Dealing is done.  But sometimes the magic number comes after going back to the pencil and paper a time or two. Sometimes the artists have to re-think what they hope to make.  Or sometimes we say, “Okay, we’ll try it at that price and see if it moves. ” And we’ve even said, “Oh, we can do better for you than that. Let’s go higher.”

Hand hammered folk art from Haiti

Sculpture al fresco in Haiti.


I can tell you honestly that I have watched these discussions a hundred times, and all of those responses have occurred. Generally, the more experienced the artist, the better feel he has for pricing.  His asking price and our buying price are easily matched and settled with a smile and handshake. We’ve been doing this successfully for a while now and so have they.  Together, we’ve learned that these exchanges yield the best results for everybody. It’s all good!

So then what?

The artist receives his order, for say thirty of his “Flower with Hummingbird” designs.  At the time he receives that order, he also receives full payment for all thirty pieces.  In this way, we not only meet, we exceed fair trade practice guidelines, which set a 50% minimum.  One month later, the art is delivered to our warehouse.  In other words, we absorb all of the risk.  If a flood washes out the workshop, the loss is ours. Not everyone works on those terms, but we do.  Always have, always will.

And there you have it.  The answer is somewhat circuitous, but the clear result is win-win.  (Oh! I just saw you roll your eyes again…)

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus



Starfish Possibilities


Our latest design addition – this lovely set of starfish by Ybernson Excellent. Get all the details at itscactus,com

Creating designs is one of the fun aspects of working with our Haitian artists. Often, we see new and wonderful designs in their shops in Haiti and we can draw and discuss our ideas face-to-face.  In between trips, they send us photos of their work. When we see something that we particularly like, we talk about tweaks and refinements back and forth through text and emails and then we submit a sample order to the artist of half a dozen so that we can see that the quality will be consistent.

One of our latest successes has been our new starfish. Based on a photo sent to us by Ybernson Excellent, we knew they hadIMG_9048 (640x640) terrific potential. We sampled them back in June, placed a fulll order in July and now, having arrived at the docks last week, they are in our warehouse, ready to go. And look! See how beautiful they are? The contouring and beadwork is spot-on and they have so many decorative possibilities!

One such decorating opportunity occurred to me this weekend, while I was setting up for a wedding shower with an “Under the Sea” theme. Arranged on the table with a few other theme-appropriate accessories, everything combined to make a nice centerpiece. One large one looked terrific propped up against nautical lanterns on the drinks table. No nails or easels required – how great is that?

Of course it goes without saying that the starfish can be hung easily on the wall. One nail through the hole provided is all it takes. They can be arranged together or in groupings with other items, such as around a mirror or another piece of art. They also look great when paired with another of our sculptures – say a mermaid, for instance. Scatter a few underneath one of the larger pieces to ” tell the story.”

Sold in sets of three, these sea stars are well-crafted and versatile. Additionally, they are weather-proof, handmade, fair trade, and all of that good stuff. So what would YOU do with a starfish? Love to see YOUR ideas!IMG_9041 (640x637)



Contributed by Linda for “It’s Cactus”

Doing Good in Haiti

This sweet young thing is all excited to be getting a pair of Giving Shoes.

This sweet young thing is all excited to be getting a pair of Giving Shoes.

Several weeks ago, I got a new Toms catalogue in the mail. Haiti was featured in the photo shoot of their new spring fashion collection. Needless to say, I was intrigued and paged through with more than casual interest.
Toms, you may know, is a fashion company with a penchant for philanthropy. They have a “One for One” program that began with shoes in 2006. For every pair of shoes purchased, Toms gives a pair of shoes to a child in need. I really liked the idea in the beginning, and supported it by buying quite a few pairs of shoes for myself and as gifts for my family. I liked it, that is, until I did some reading about the effects of charitable donations of clothing in underdeveloped countries. I learned to my horror that in the spirit of giving, countries of the First World have wreaked havoc on the clothing and textile industries of the Third World. There are so many tons of free clothing given out that home grown industry has been, in some cases, nearly wiped out. This includes shoes, and Toms was, unfortunately, implicated. I confess that my enthusiasm for the company and their products crashed and burned, though I never quite got around to withdrawing my name from their mailing list.
Saving trees notwithstanding, this turned out to be a good thing. In reading the new catalogue I discovered that Toms was not oblivious to the criticism being levied against it and in fact, set about to respond in a hugely positive way. Toms committed itself to producing 1/3 of all of their “Giving Shoes” locally by the end of 2015. In Haiti, this commitment has resulted in the opening of a factory outside Port-au-Prince that now employs 40 Haitians, nearly half of whom are women. To date, they have produced over 500,000 shoes for distribution throughout the island country.
And, to coin our own phrase, Toms is “Fighting Poverty with Art.” The Haiti Artist Collective employs 30 Haitians to create a line of hand-

Looking through photos of the children of our artists in Croix-des-Bouquets, I noticed that alot of them did have shoes.  Like to think that our fair trade practices have something to do with that.

Looking through photos of the children of our artists in Croix-des-Bouquets, I noticed that alot of them did have shoes. Like to think that our fair trade practices have something to do with that.

painted footwear, sold exclusively through Toms. Inspiration for the designs comes from the artist’s themselves, who offer up unique perspectives on Haitian life, of love and peace, and of music and culture. (Sounds a little like It’s Cactus artists too…)
I am happy to report that my enthusiasm for Toms has been revived – big time. Hat’s off! Hip-hip-hooray! What a wonderful things they are accomplishing. Marvelous! I would continue to wax superlative, but I gotta go. It’s time to order shoes.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Vetiver: The earthy, aromatic smell of success

The grassy roots are blended with floral tones to create many of today's most expensive perfumes.

The grassy roots of vetiver are blended with floral tones to create many of today’s most expensive perfumes.

Who knew?

A grassy plant known as vetiver- originally introduced in the 1940s as a soil anchor to reduce erosion on the steep, dry, denuded mountainsides of southwestern Haiti – has become the premium cash crop of the region.  The Haitians appreciated it for its quick-growing density and began cutting it seasonally for thatch, but its real value, as it turns out, is in its roots.  When harvested and boiled down, the root oil becomes a primary ingredient for the world’s perfume industry, which demands 100-120 tons of vetiver annually.  Haiti is now the largest producer, raising over half of the world’s total, with smaller quantities grown in Java, China, Madagascar, Brazil and Paraguay. Pierre, a Dutch-trained Haitian agronomist calls vetiver, “a miracle plant. You dig it up, cut off the roots, plant it right back and it produces again next year. It needs no irrigation or fertilizer.”

Vetiver oil is the major ingredient in some 36% of all western perfumes, Caleche, Chanel No. 5, Dioressence, Parure, Opium, to name a few.  (For a comprehensive list, click here: http://www.fragrantica.com/notes/Vetiver-2.html) It’s value lies in the fact that it blends easily with other aromatic oils and because its fixative properties promote lasting fragrance. In the words of Dr. Chandra Shekhar Gupta, Senior Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resourses in New Delhi, vertiver possess, “aromatic verdancy, fragrant rootiness, subtle, refreshing citrusiness, enjoyable earthiness, a wonderful hint of woodiness, and a certain Guerlainesque leathery-ambery darkness in the drydown.”

In addition to its direct perfumery applications, vetiver oil in its diluted form is extensively used in after-shave lotions, cosmetics, air fresheners and bathing products, as well as flavoring syrups, ice cream, and acting as a food preservative. It is used in cool drinks, incense sticks, and (I love this part!) for reducing pungency of chewing tobacco preparations, thereby providing a sweet note to other masticatories.  Additionally, roots have been used for making screens, mats, hand fans and baskets. In Java, screens are hung like curtains in the houses and when sprinkled water, imparting a fragrant coolness to the air.

There is no synthetic substitute available, making vertiver a crop with excellent value and staying power.  Approximately 150 pounds of vetiver roots are required to produce a scant 1 lb of oil.  The roots are cut, cleaned, delivered and sold by the farmers to distilleries which produce the oil. From there, it is transported to major distributers of essential oils who in turn, sell to the perfume industry in 55 gallon drums, (sound familiar?!) the contents of which being worth between $30,000 – $40,000 each.

Unfortunately, the vetiver farmers of Haiti don’t currently collect their fair share of that princely sum, but that is changing.  Following the 2010 earthquake, both perfumers and distillation companies became (suddenly and curiously) overcome with the desire to engage in fair trading and sustainability practices.  Schools were built, roads were excavated, wells were dug, and farming cooperatives were formed.  To date, approximately half of all Haitian vetiver producers are participating in co-ops which protect their prices, teach good conservation practices, and provide incentives for superlative crops.  As a result, the farmers’ daily earnings have increased dramatically; up almost 30% since 2010. This is an astronomical growth in earnings, but bear in mind, the average daily wage back then was $2.  In other words, there’s still a long ways to go, but the trend is both important and encouraging.


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It;s Cactus

Cupping coffee

IMG_2075 (640x480)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Haitian coffee and where to get it in the United States.  At that time, I rather brashly suggested a taste-test and promised that one would be forthcoming.  So for those of you who have been waiting for me to do that, you may at this point be suspecting that I have been stalling.  In that assumption, you would be correct.


Let me tell you about taste-testing coffee.  First of all, isn’t a taste test, it is a “cupping.”  And it’s fairly complicated, no less so than wine-tasting.  There are protocols to be observed, such as evaluating the aroma of freshly ground beans, and then dampening a precisely measured amount of grounds in a precisely measured amount of water heated to a degree that must be consistent from cup to cup and, yes, precise.  Furthermore, to achieve a reasonable level of accuracy you would do this three times for each type of coffee that you cup. See for yourself, bearing in mind that it is only a ROUGH procedural guide.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5vz7sxlkQI Lord knows what the serious cuppers do!


Then there is the lingo.  I listened to some reviews of other coffees and the reviews included phrases like, “raspberry notes, “and “jasmine overtones, with a long, hazelnut finish.” While I was doing my level best to be attentive to taste and smell as I sampled the coffees separately over a week of breakfasts, I kept coming up with “herbal,” “smoky” and “oaken,” which lead me to the following observation about myself:  I write for a living, but I don’t taste for a living. My vocabulary is fairly sophisticated, my palate is not.  This then begged the question, “Should I be doing this???”


I believe the answer is no, to tell the truth.  So this is what I’m going to do.  I will tell you that, after sampling, Rebo’s “Melange Gourmet,” La Colombe’s “Mare Blanche” and “Lyon” and Just Haiti’s “Kafe Solidarite,” on successive mornings, the latter, Just Haiti’s “Kafe Solidarite” is what I have been drinking ever since.  It is smooth, not bitter, and I like it. Plus, they are a small fair trade company and they stuck a “Freshly Roasted Coffee for Linda” label on the package.  Nice!  So if you want some “Kafe Solidarite” freshly roasted for YOU, here’s where you can get it:  http://justhaiti.org/


Bottoms up!


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus


Fair Trade – Good for Everyone

IMG_1318 (640x486)Since 2007, Beyond Borders has been a member of the Fair Trade Federation, at that time becoming an officially recognized participant in the global fair trade movement. We have always been committed to building equitable and sustainable trading partnerships and creating opportunities to alleviate poverty. Membership has put a stamp on those efforts. In keeping with fair trade practices, our purchasing and production choices are made with concern for the well-being of people and the environment. We work to create opportunity for so that our craftsmen and artisans may have viable economic options to meet their own needs. We engage in trading practices that honor the value of labor and dignity of all people.

Fair Trade Federation members are required to demonstrate compliance with the Nine Principles of Membership.  We are evaluated on these principles not just once to get in the door, but every single year.  The Nine Principles are as follows:

*Creating Opportunities for Economically and Socially Marginalized ProducersCaleb Belony with Casey and clan (480x640)

*Developing Transparent and Accountable Relationships

*Build Capacity

*Promote Fair Trade

*Pay promptly and fairly

*Support safe and empowering working conditions

*Ensure the rights of children

*Cultivate environmentally stewardship

*Respect cultural identity


YThere is actually a 34 page down-loadable pdf.document on the Fair Trade Federation website  which outlines very specifically The Fair Trade Federation Code of Practice. (View it here: http://www.fairtradefederation.org/fair-trade-federation-code-of-practice/ ) This is a REALLY BIG DEAL and we take our responsibilities of membership very seriously, going above and beyond the minimums required.  For example, we pay  100% for every order up front – not  simply for the cost  of materials with the rest payable on delivery. Beyond Borders sends an average of $30,000 for orders to our artists in Haiti with completed goods shipped to us in return on a monthly basis. The impact of this type of trade in the lives of the artists is enormous.   Yinder Decembre, a talented sculptor  of  beautiful sun-faced children puts it this way, “These children represent the sun shining on the future.  If I can sell my work, I can  build my house and take care of my brothers and sisters.  I have faith that everything will be okay.”

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus



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