Fair Trade Gets Innovative

August 25th, 2010 by Jenara Nerenberg

How one designer brings the creative spirit to do-good commerce.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Chris Haughton was named in TIME Magazine's 2007 "Design & Style 100" as a top designer to watch for his fair trade designs with eco-clothing company, People Tree, and since then he has continued in that role, but innovated and expanded into spheres as diverse as children's books, toys, carpets, and more, all with an ethical, fair trade angle. His latest book, A Bit Lost, earned him quick and rewarding reception throughout Asia, and is now available in the United States. Fast Company caught up with Haughton to find out more on his unique role in the world of design.

Are books and toys the future of fair trade?
I don't know if they're the future of fair trade but they make a nice gifts! Every part of the little owl, made from scratch from raw cotton, is hand-spun, dyed, woven and sewn all by the women from a women's shelter. It is helping to provide income to support 90 new women per year and their children, as well as supporting their literacy training and educating their children. Mahaguthi, the fair trade company that makes the toys was actually set up with a donation from Gandhi eighty years ago and has a really fascinating history. One of the things I love about the toys is that each owl is slightly different and each one has a different (worried!) expression on its face which just isn't possible with industrial manufacture. It's just a more meaningful gift as it benefits people who need a hand and has this nice story behind it.

How did you get involved with People Tree?
I was friends with a designer who was designing the clothes for People Tree around seven years ago. She had told me about the way the company was set up and I wanted to get involved. Initially I volunteered some designs to produce a line of children's clothing. I designed some little animal prints for cute little t-shirts and bibs and they sold really well so I was asked to do more. Then we did some adult tees and stationery. In the end I have done a whole range of things for them and I sort of ended up branding the company by default.

So tell me, why has the bulk of your work been carried out in Asia?
My illustration work is quite popular in Japan and Korea and I seem to get a lot of commissions there. People Tree was actually started in Japan, and also my picture book was first published in Korean when it was picked up at a book fair. Also, this year I have spent 8 months developing products in India and Nepal. I'm not sure why I have been so centered around Asia. Maybe it's just coincidence or maybe because of the lovely food.

What role do young designers like yourself play in changing social norms in the design field at large?
I think that design will have to pay more attention to things other than surface or aesthetic appeal. As I see it, design right now (especially graphic design) is more part of the problem than the solution. I had become very disillusioned in design because I had been working in a very superficial way. I think many designers feel this and there is a growing movement of designers who are thinking more seriously about design, but not nearly enough is happening right now. I think the most effective thing to do as a designer is to try to create or instigate projects from the very start. Otherwise graphic artists and designers tend to get hired right at the end of a (usually!) ill-conceived project and our work is just simply tacked on to 'make it look nice.'

What's next for you?
I have developed some products working with four different fair trade groups in Nepal and I hope to find distribution now in London. The one I'm most excited about is producing rugs with KTS, an adults technical school that supports an orphanage. I realized we can create rugs from digital images where each pixel corresponds to a carpet knot. They produce the most amazing hand-knotted rugs from Tibetan wool. We have produced some test rugs and I hope to have an exhibition in London soon and perhaps also sell the designs from my website. I also have two more children's books in the pipeline. One is about a bad dog!