Ever wondered how a fair trade business begins?

I certainly have, which is why I was thrilled to hear that my childhood friend, Mary, is currently serving her time in the Peace Corps helping Senegalese fair trade artisans create a more sustainable business model. I couldn’t wait to hear more.

Of course, it didn’t take long to realize that the recycled prayer mat baskets sold at Global Exchange Fair Trade Stores are the exact same baskets coming from my friend’s Peace Corps project in Senegal. Small world, eh?

The story begins in 2007, when a child from the village Diama Thiendou, Senegal died from malaria after being unable to reach a medical center in time to be treated. In the wake of its loss, the community came together and formed the association And Suxali Sunu Gokh, which means “work together and make our village flourish.”

The association is committed to providing above average wages to women weavers, and restoring profits back to the artisan community. The Wolof weavers of Senegal are highly skilled in basket weaving, using a traditional coiling technique by binding njodax, a thick local grass, and thin strips of palm frond. Twenty years ago, the women made the switch from palm frond to strips of recycled plastic purchased from a mat factory in Dakar, merging a traditional technique with modern materials.

One of the association’s leaders and most respected village elders, Amadou Sow, knew the association was highly skilled in basket weaving, but there was not a large market for their baskets within Senegal. He approached the first Peace Corps volunteer to be placed in the town of Ngaye Mekhe for help finding a larger market.

The Peace Corps volunteer headed to Mali for a trade show, and met a representative of an American fair trade importing company that trades and imports from all over Africa. After seeing the beautiful Wolof baskets, the representative knew they would sell in the United States.

By having an established buyer, the women profit more consistently. These baskets can sell locally for as little as $6-7, which just breaks even with materials and transportation; however, hours of labor and time spent in transit are not yet figured in. Setting up a fair working wage and sustainable business model must keep in mind all labor costs, so the Peace Corps volunteers  worked with the association to set a higher price per basket.

There has been a noticeable change in standard of living for all of the 26 rural Senegalese villages involved. In coming together through tragedy, this association has created a community that can now provide better for themselves and each other.

And, the world is watching. The Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Elle Decor featured the Wolof prayer mat laundry hampers in their “What’s Hot” layout, continuing the consistent order increases.

Just in time for spring, we’ve stocked up on these beautiful baskets in the season’s best colors. Come check them out at Global Exchange’s Fair Trade Store in San Francisco (map), and help continue to better the lives of these Wolof women.

“People are so smart!” is something I often overhear at Global Exchange’s Fair Trade Store in San Francisco. As customers wander the store, I watch their sheer amazement in the “garbage” turned into beautifully hand-crafted gifts. By making creative consumer products out of post-consumer material, artisans world-wide are not only reducing their environmental footprint, but are also reminding us that it is possible to take things out of the waste stream and make profitable – and beautiful – products.

Broken Indian bangles become sparkling picture frames and jewelry boxes.

Old Senegalese prayer mats become stylish, colorful baskets.

Flip flops in Mali become bracelets.

Used Ghanaian water bags become eco-friendly shopping bags.

Candy wrappers and chip bags become classy clutch bags in Honduras.

The logic is simple and sustainable. By reusing post-consumer waste, “trash” never makes it to a landfill, and an environmentally-invasive production cycle stops. As we are the most wasteful nation in the world, we should pay attention to this incredible usage of garbage.

There are already some American companies who are paying attention. TerraCycle, a small but successful New Jersey-based company, is pushing the boundaries of reusing waste that is hard to recycle. TerraCycle began in 2001 by two Princeton freshman, who collected Dining Hall waste and used a worm compost to make natural plant food products. Now, TerraCycle is making everything from Capri-Sun drink-pouch backpacks to M&M-wrapper messenger bags.

Green Citizen, another American company, is committed to keeping electronics out of landfills. By providing repair services (to keep electronics running as long as possible) and environmentally responsible electronics recycling, Green Citizen is doing its part to sustain already-made products, so that producing new electronics can wait.

Read about TerraCycle and other green economic solutions in Global Exchange’s new book, Building the Green Economy, co-written by Kevin Danaher (co-founder of Global Exchange), Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark.

Creating beauty out of “garbage” is not only sustainable – it’s wise. We can all take a lesson in turning something less desirable into something profound, and can allow this new year to be a new beginning in our consumption habits. Let’s support those who are already stopping the consumption cycle by using recycled or post-consumer material to create!

Happy 2011 from the Global Exchange Fair Trade Stores!