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Gifts That Really Keep Giving
Diverse fair trade options in the Flathead
Irene Zuehlsdorff, owner of First Choice Decor in Kalispell, unloads a shipment of hand-woven baskets from Ghana and Senegal. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Bits and piece of the world lie nestled in a storefront on Kalispell’s Main Street; woven baskets from Ghana in West Africa, handmade glass ornaments from Egypt, and other intricate and beautiful goods line the shelves.

The selection of items available at First Choice Décor is almost overwhelming in and of itself. But when the actual value of each item is considered, the store takes on a whole new meaning.

First Choice Décor sells only fair-trade items. This means the person responsible for each craft or piece of art sold in the store was fairly compensated for his or her work. For example, the baskets from Ghana, which are woven from indigenous grasses, take three days to complete, and the purchase provides a mother with income to feed, clothe and educate her children.

Another example could be the purchase of certain glassware in the store that helps support Thai women who have escaped sex slavery and are trying to make their way anew.

It’s the added benefit of each purchase that keeps store owner Irene Zuehlsdorff enthused about her products and her mission to bring more fair-trade goods to the Flathead and to the valley’s consciousness.

“We make sure that everything is fairly traded,” Zuehlsdorff said of her shop. “Everything follows the practices of fair trade.”

And while that generally means bringing in items from around the world, Zuehlsdorff also sells pieces from locals who might be struggling to make ends meet here in the valley.

“It’s all the same thing,” she said.

As we hurtle forward in the holiday season, full of presents and merriment, people like Zuehlsdorff hope to remind shoppers that there are gifts they could purchase that would have an extra layer of meaning behind them.

“These are gifts that just give and give and give,” Zuehlsdorff said. “Everything has a story and we try to share that story.”

Fair trade isn’t a new concept in the Flathead; Zuehlsdorff began her efforts with the woven baskets nine years ago, and has since expanded. The Mountain View Mennonite Church in Kalispell has hosted its International Gift Festival since 1999, selling fair-trade gifts it receives via Ten Thousand Villages, one of the largest fair-trade organizations in the United States.

Zuehlsdorff also put together a list of local shops that sell fair trade items, which consisted of many local grocers, markets and retailers. There was also a local effort to get Kalispell certified with Fair Trade Towns USA.

Fair trade is also an important concept for several local coffee shops. Colter Coffee Roasting is listed as a partner with Fair Trade USA, along with Montana Coffee Traders.

Irene Zuehlsdorff, owner of First Choice Decor in Kalispell, unloads a shipment of hand-woven baskets from Ghana and Senegal. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon


Alison Chopp, production manager and green coffee buyer for Montana Coffee Traders, said fair trade is part of her company’s business plan because it ensures the coffee farmers are cared for, in turn assuring a quality product.

“We care about the farmers. That’s why it’s important to us, because if our farmers aren’t taken care of, our business suffers. We’re not going to get the quality that we want,” Chopp said. “Fair trade helps them hold out for a price for them that’s livable.”

Coffee Traders works with farmer cooperatives that determine a fair price for what it is costing them to produce each hectare of coffee, Chopp said. About half of Coffee Traders’ coffees are fair trade, she said, and others are purchased through direct trade with some farmers, which generally ends up costing the company more than through fair trade.

It’s worth the cost, Chopp said, because her company knows the money provides food, education and security for the farmers they work with.

“Fair trade is definitely important to us,” she said.

In Kalispell, Zuehlsdorff said business has picked up since she moved to the Main Street location last June, though she believes there is much work to be done when it comes to educating the local population about fair trade.

Many of her customers who understand the concept are from out of town, Zuehlsdorff said, or are part of the younger population. But there’s always hope, she said; when she first started selling baskets, she didn’t fully understand the concept, but just knew she wanted to help.

“I hope it catches on,” Zuehlsdorff said.
 
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