Fair Anita sources from a network of over 8,000 mostly female artisans across the world.
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Minneapolis entrepreneur Joy McBrien is the founder of Fair Anita, a stylish and affordably priced fair trade jewelry and accessory business that prioritizes ethical production, equitable wages and sustainability. Named for Anita Caldas, a social worker McBrien met while volunteering in Peru, Fair Anita sources from a network of over 8,000 mostly female artisans across the world.

Joy McBrien poses with social worker and Fair Anita namesake Anita Caldas.
Joy McBrien (right) with social worker and Fair Anita namesake Anita Caldas (left).
| Credit: Courtesy of Joy McBrien

Tell me about your design process. Do ideas for the pieces you sell come from you or the women you work with?

Sometimes the design process starts in my head. I'll dream up things relatively frequently. But a lot of times it'll start with the design that artists and partners have, or an inventory of the samples and materials the artisans are using. And then we make adjustments together.

Sustainability is also a big piece of Fair Anita. How do you look at recycled materials and create something profitable?

The women that we work with are super resourceful. In a lot of ways, they've had to be because of life circumstances. It also keeps our product cost down because I'm not spending as much money on new materials. In our warehouse, we send out 100 percent of our orders in reused boxes and bubble mailers. I think it just aligns with our mission so much: Even if customers are getting their order in a diaper box, it's just part of the fun.

Soft Fabric Jewelry Rolls from Fair Anita
These soft fabric jewelry rolls for traveling are among McBrien's all-time favorite products: "It took me three years to design and develop, and it's just better than all the other ones!"
| Credit: Courtesy of Joy McBrien

How do you balance appealing to the U.S. fashion market while staying true to your ethical missions?

I think a lot of fair trade supply chains would make the same product and sell it for 40 years. While I wish that was what the consumer mindset looked like in the U.S., fast fashion really disrupts that. There's this sense of urgency. If you go into Target and find something cute, you buy it right away because it might not be there when you go back the next week. So we produce about 60 new products twice a year to try to keep things fresh and interesting, and we clearance out the same number of products every year. Ultimately, we are a social enterprise. And part of what I love is that our mission and the business go hand in hand. So, the more fair trade jewelry we're selling, the more sustainable jobs that we can guarantee to women around the world.

Your company is named for Peruvian social worker Anita Caldas. I'm curious why you were initially drawn to that country and why so much of your activism has been outside of the States.

In 2009 Peru had the highest reported rate of domestic violence in the world. Sixty-nine percent of women were reporting that they had experienced domestic violence, meaning actual rates were even higher. I have a history of rape and sexual violence. I was just really struggling to connect with anything, so I knew that I needed to do something tangible. As a part of my coping process and healing journey I ended up working with a group of local women (spearheaded by Anita Caldas) in Chimbote, Peru, to build a battered women's shelter there. 

I am definitely a women's rights activist in Minneapolis. But the reason we work with women outside the States is probably because I really wanted to make fair trade products more accessible and more affordable, and working with women in the U.S. would have priced me out of that range.

I read a blog post you wrote about there being a whiteness problem in fair trade. What can the movement do to distance itself from a "white savior" complex?

I started Fair Anita from a naive place, maybe just a little bit pure-hearted without understanding the dynamics of my own power and privilege. I really wanted to build a community of survivors, but I am a white woman with an American passport, who works with about 8,000 artisans around the world—almost exclusively women of color. It's really important to acknowledge those facts and be vocal about your own positionality.

The biggest steps I have been taking are with the Fair Trade Federation. We changed the Fair Trade Principles last year to include more of an antiracist lens, and we've changed the Code of Practice. In terms of other forms of oppression, we also removed a lot of binary language and have also focused on making sure there's consent in relationships, especially with sharing artisan pictures and stories. When I started publicly talking about my own experience with rape and sexual violence, our brand was often described as one started by a rape survivor who now is helping other rape survivors. I guess it's true, but it's also obviously my least favorite part of my identity. My discomfort with that description has really inspired me to be more intentional with how we work with our artists and partners and how we share their stories.

What would you say to businesses or consumers considering fair trade?

We're trying to create more just global trade. I'm really grateful for the community that we've built and all the people that we work with. It's been incredible to see that community grow, especially given that this business started in my apartment. We are proof that this model works, and hopefully it will inspire other businesses to create their products more ethically and sustainably.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.