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When Brattleboro, Vermont, committed to citywide Fair Trade purchasing in June 2007, the second Fair Trade town in the US was born — thanks largely to the efforts of Tamara Stenn and her Fair Trade import business, Kusikuy.
A seller of high-quality, hand-knit sweaters, hats, scarves, and other garments made by artisan communities in South America, Kusikiuy has supported Fair Trade principles for more than a decade. We asked Tamara to tell us more about her business, whose name means “make yourself happy” in Quechua, the language spoken by the majority of the indigenous knitters.
Green America: What does your business do?
Kusikuy offers these
colorful hats and scarves
for men and women.
Tamara Stenn: Kusikuy works with knitting groups in the Andes mountains that are self-managed and we enable participants to work within their indigenous culture. We travel to remote villages to provide work in these rural settings and to help preserve traditional culture while creating an important source of income in some of the Andes’ poorest regions. Our most popular products are our kids’ hoodies – a product designed by me and our wonderfully talented knitters.
How did Kusikuy come about, and what makes you green?
Tamara: I was living in Bolivia as a rural journalist and business developer with the US Peace Corps. I met many rural knitting groups while a journalist and was impressed by their talent, the alpaca fiber, and surprised at their lack of market access. When I finished Peace Corps, I returned to the US to earn a masters degree in Management from the School for International Training in Vermont. This is where I started Kusikuy, strategizing that Vermont is cold and people here would like alpaca sweaters.
My knitters were excited to have regular work and have benefited tremendously over the years. Kusikiuy has always been Fair Trade, used local and organic materials, and been made “off the grid” (using no fossil fuels), because that reflects my personal values. Kusikuy is 100-percent sweatshop-free. Kusikuy hand-knitters earn triple the minimum wage. Kusikuy hand-loomers earn double minimum wage – always.
Tamara with the knitters
(and an alpaca) in Peru.
Kusikuy has been a member of the Fair Trade Federation since 2001. We personally know and regularly visit the carefully selected producer groups we work with. Over the years we have formed strong friendships with these wonderfully talented people. We support them in their development both professionally and personally and proudly comply with all Fair Trade criteria.
How are the sweaters designed?
Tamara: Together with the knitters, new lines of Kusikuy knits are created each year. European design has a strong influence in South America and the latest of European fashion runway styles is seen in much of our styling. Many Kusikuy designs are taken from daily life in the community, such as a border design of men and women holding hands, dancing. Other designs were inspired by ancestral pottery art more than 5,000 years old. Still others, like a snowflake, reflect the imagination and whimsy of the knitters themselves. All Kusikuy items are handmade by the finest knitters in Bolivia and Peru.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
It takes Kusikuy knitters
a week to carefully crochet
this natural alpaca,
Tamara: Green is good and works easily. We have been “green” for so long that it is more a lifestyle for us. For example, we did not start working with chemical dyes until low-impact ones were available and thoroughly tested and we had toured the water treatment systems in the Bolivian mills. Once we were thoroughly satisfied that the dyes were okay, then we gave approval for knitters to begin using the yarn from these approved mills. So for six years we only knit with natural fiber (though dyed fiber was available). Now we have an approved low-impact pallette and we have just developed our own organic veggie-dyed yarn line too. We did this because we did not want to harm the environment – that is always our motivation, to take care of the earth and community. It just happens to be a popular trend for folks now too. Which is good. But we always have been this way.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Tamara: We enjoy seeing the knitters grow, their communities flourish, and their families thrive. This is the most rewarding for us. Our goal is not to get rich on this, we just do what we like to do, enjoy life, and hope to make it meaningful for all – the knitters, the consumer and us. The company has been growing at 20 percent a year since we started and we still know most customers and knitters by name! We don’t believe in one person making more money than another – we think everyone is equally important in the process – from the best knitter to the part time administrative assistant. Our pay scale is pretty flat with the USA staff all earning the same hourly rate – even the owner!
What advice would you give to green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Tamara: Kusikuy is the 3rd company I have started (the first was a green ad agency and in Bolivia I founded and directed a rural newspaper), so we were able to avoid most pitfalls. One word of advice to new companies is to cover your costs. Don’t be afraid to charge a high amount for your product – if it is well made and expensive then so be it. You need to have money for marketing, shipping, design, administration, etc. It is harder to increase prices once a product is launched than to just launch a higher priced product.
Even so, 50 percent of all our product sales goes right back to the Kusikuy knitters – this is considered very high. Many green companies give 40 percent back to the producers. Many mainstream companies give less than 10 percent back to the producers.
What are you excited about going forward?
Tamara: We are manufacturing more now for private designers. It is good to see others embracing our values and wanting to take the extra steps to make their clothing eco-ethical. Also, we will be offering some ecotourism to Bolivia.
What green product could you not live without?
Tamara: I love buying bulk from my local co-op, supporting our local farmers here in Vermont, making most of my own foods from raw ingredients (i.e. canning, jams, etc.) and also eating the amazing abundance of wild foods our woods have to offer. We love our local thrift stores and family swaps so we can purchase pre-owned items and not have to support new manufacturing.
We love Seventh Generation and Ecover for making cleaning so easy and clean. And Annie’s Naturals for giving us a fast and easy snacks! Seventh Generation is in Vermont (like us), and Annie’s is down the road in Massachusetts.
Check back for answers to reader questions around the end of February.