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Third World Products Find Market in Madison

Fair Indigo sells a wide variety of products, from sweaters, denim and T-shirts to hand-made jewelry. Most are made by artisans in developing countries. The idea behind using foreign manufacturers is not to drive prices down, but to raise the wages and living conditions of the local workers and their communities.

Fair Indigo's products are crafted by skilled artisans, most of whom live half a world away from the company's customers. "The makers of our products are people who work primarily in Peru, Uruguay, Costa Rica in Central America," says Robert Behnke vice-president and co-founder of the year-old company, which has facilities in China, Macao and India.

Behnke explains that Fair Indigo works directly with its cooperatives and artisan groups which produce the products it designs. He stresses that although manufactured by different groups in different countries, each item in its store in Madison, Wisc., and on its website must meet the company's high quality standards.

Behnke says most of Fair Indigo's customers purchase products online or from their catalogue. "We've worked with these groups to maintain that consistency and to educate them on how important it is that the product looks like it does in the photograph," he says.

Every Fair Indigo product has a story behind it. The necklaces, earrings and bracelets highlighted in this fall's jewelry collection are made by disabled artisans in Peru, who were struggling to find a market.

"In Peru, it's really tough for a lot of disabled people to find any gainful employment," Behnke says. "What ends up happening is they are typically on the street trying to sell crafts they make to tourists, or they are living in shelters trying to collect unemployment benefits.'

Behnke says Fair Indigo discovered a group of artisans in Peru who had already been organized by a couple of former retail executives, who "got them equipment, got them the right training and the right facilities." Now he says, "there's about 30 disabled artisans working on Fair Indigo jewelry, and this will be the first time that they've exported their goods outside Peru."

Store manager Julie Krbec says Fair Indigo's customers appreciate that the company shares stories like this.

"We do that by including information on the tags of the products that tell about that specific factory or co-op," she says. "We also have portraits throughout our store of the folks who are actually making these clothes."

Krbec says Fair Indigo is all about style with a conscience — producing beautiful garments while paying those who make them a fair and livable wage. Fair trade, she points out, benefits the artisans' communities as well.

"10 percent of all our proceeds also go back to the communities in which our factories and co-ops are located," she says. "It helps support those communities in the way of education. We feel that one of the best ways to lift up those communities is to provide education for the people living there."

After one year in operation, Fair Indigo is hoping to expand, looking for more artisans to add to its product line, and more communities that can benefit from its way of doing business.