Workers at the Alta Gracia Factory in the Dominican Republic
photo: Alta Gracia

U.S. Latinos have huge buying power. Economists estimate we had about $1.4 trillion to spend last year on everything from dresses to blenders. That means what we choose to buy here in the U.S. can have a huge impact all over the world where these goods are produced.

When we buy chiles or tomatoes imported from Mexico, we’re usually supporting farms that subject their workers to harsh conditions and labor exploitation. So maybe you try to buy stuff with the Fair Trade label imported from Latin America. What does it really mean, though?

That’s controversial. Fair Trade companies pledge to buy only from small cooperative farms who pay at least minimum wage and don’t use child labor. They pay farmers a little more for goods (a few cents per kilo), and add a modest “social premium” to fund community projects like schools and hospitals.

All that is definitely way better than the horrible treatment most workers in giant conventional farms face. But it’s not as good as it could or should be. For every dollar in Fair Trade sales, only three cents on average goes to the farmers! The rest? Into the pockets of U.S. or European companies who profit from our desire to buy fair.

The choice is easy. We all want to do good. But sometimes it’s not so easy to tell which companies are helping and which are harming. There are many companies that go way beyond that and change lives. 

To help you out, we did the research, so you can shop with a clear conscience this Christmas season and help some local Latin American communities out in the process.

Clothes and Accesories

Alta Gracia Apparel makes college T-shirts in a living-wage factory in the Dominican Republic. Workers earn more than three times the minimum wage and toil in a clean, safe factory — a life changer for most of them, who were used to earning 85 cents an hour!

“We are truly in this together,” says founder and CEO Donnie Hodge — who also offers the workers health care and school supplies.

Karün World sunglasses are made of either recycled fishing nets or fallen trees from Chile’s Patagonia. They’re also dyed with nontoxic tints made from onions, peppers, and beets — and use the salmon leather that fisheries throw away. Why do we care? Discarded fishing nets make up 10 percent of the plastic floating around the ocean — which traps and poisons fish, dolphins, and other sea creatures. So it’s definitely better to make the nets into gafas! Plus, using wood from fallen trees means your shades are biodegradable — and didn’t destroy any forests.

Food and Drinks

Runa Tea is a Brooklyn-based company that sells tea made out of the caffeinated guayusa leaf from the Ecuadorian rainforest. It’s kind of like a sweeter yerba maté. It works with about 3,000 indigenous workers in the Amazon region, and the company invests an extra $50,000 toward community projects each year. Plus, it's planted 150,000 trees! Since guayusa grows best in the shade, its farmers are less likely to chop down trees. Adios, deforestation; hello, healthy community.

Maybe you’ve read about the quinoa controversy: Critics say now that quinoa is popular in the U.S., poor Peruvians can’t afford their staple food anymore. But if you buy quinoa, coffee, or chocolate from Alter Eco, rest easy: Last year the company paid $9 million — more than half of its sales! — to small farmers, mostly in Latin America. Thanks to this brand, growers have built water pipelines and have been trained to farm organic, among other projects. Alter Eco has even developed a biodegradable chocolate wrapper, so the feel-good effect lasts long after you’ve chowed down on its truffles.

Sneakers and Sports

On a backpacking trip through Peru, Inkkas sneakers founder Dan Ben-Nun fell in love with the colorful local textiles. Sore feet, beautiful fabrics . . . y violá! The idea for a cool new line of sneakers was born.

Today, Inkkas uses fabrics from the Andes, Guatemala, and Africa, and are hand-sewn by Mexican workers — who earn double the normal rate. 

The typical soccer gear company poses two problems: one, its balls are expensive as @#*$; and two, its equipment is made in third-world sweatshops. Argentine-American owned Senda Athletics has done away with both those issues: The brand's balls start at just $20 and are stitched in a fair-wage factory. The company also supports soccer programs for kids.

For every backpack you buy, Bixbee backpacks donates one to a child in need — in the Americas, including Haiti, and in poor neighborhoods in the U.S. And they’re ergonomically designed, so both you and those kids will be comfy even with a heavy load of books.

Inspired? For more companies doing good, check out B Corporations, a list of socially conscious startups. Or get more shopping ideas from Fair Trade USA and know that this Christmas, you’re practically a Reina Mago for all the people you’ll help.