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Christine Mont-LaButte was living what many would consider the dream life.

In 1997, she was living in New York City, working for Gucci in the fashion industry, and recently learned she and her husband were pregnant with their first child.

Despite this success, she felt something was missing in her career. A stroke of luck put Christine in a conversation with a missionary nun who changed her life. The nun connected Christine with fair trade products for the first time and opened her eyes to a new world.

“She traveled the world working with her fellow Sisters in various developing countries,” Christine recounts. “The nuns would then travel back to the U.S., Australia, and Europe- countries that could afford to purchase handmade crafts- with their suitcases full of products from artisans and sold the products out of their bags.”

What struck Christine to her core was these nuns took the profits back to the people who made them. That didn’t happen in the fashion industry. The genuine nature of the whole trade route the nuns operated was in stark contrast to her work at Gucci and many other companies in the US.

“The luxury goods industry had a side to the business that was not always pretty. It was fun, but it was stressful. The people were very fake.” During her conversation with the nun, Christine realized that the path she was on was not the right journey for her and decided to make a change to pursue a career in fair trade.

“I knew there was a lot more to what trade could to do than what we are used to here in the U.S.”

Call it divine intervention or call it realizing a truth she had always felt, but Christine’s conversation with this nun started her shift from fashion to fair trade.

Christine has used her fashion industry skills in many facets of the fair trade supply chain. “I’ve worked in wholesale, I’ve worked in retail, I’ve been in buying offices.”

She started working for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and visited artisans in several countries where she saw first-hand their living and working conditions. The organization worked mainly with women and children, something that touched Christine. “They really were trying to help the women there be self-sufficient and help them earn income,” she recounted.

Christine then moved to a company named Jubilee Traders, now Living Imprints. This company based in Jaipur, India, sold hand block-printed linens — a craft handed down for generations in the Rajasthan state.

Overall, Christine has seen many sides of the fair trade industry and realized what she was missing in her previous career.

“I found the fact that I was beginning to work with real people — people in the industry for the right reasons. Real people on the ground who were making a difference in the lives of others.”

Her experience working directly with artisans and in fashion buying makes her a key figure at FairTrade Caravans.

Christine first met Carol Fassino, founder of FairTrade Caravans, at the Fair Trade Federation annual conference five years ago in Burlington, Vermont. Carol was there pitching her fair trade fundraising idea– another divine intervention that brought these women together.

“It was between sessions, and I was going back to my room. As I got on the elevator there was Carol, and there was nobody else on the elevator,” Christine recollected. “We started talking and Carol told me about her fair trade fundraiser business idea, and I was so excited.”

Serendipitously for Carol, Christine had a similar fair trade fundraising idea a few years prior. The two talked so long they had to get off the elevator and sit down!

“I remember getting back from the conference and thinking of Carol and our talk,” Christine remembered. “I gave her a phone call a month later and, after talking again, I decided I could help support her through the beginning stages of her business.”

Christine’s knowledge of the fair trade industry including sourcing ethically made and traded products, and bringing them to sale in the U.S., helped Carol in the early years of FairTrade Caravans.

“Anything she needed to think or talk through, I was there for her. About a year and a half after that, I started working as a consultant for FairTrade Caravans,” she said.

Carol launched FairTrade Caravans in 2017 and Christine has been with the company from the beginning.

Now, Christine finds unique, beautiful and handmade fair-trade products to sell as part of their school and non-profit fundraisers, something her fashion background helps her to do.

“It’s a lot of trend-following,” she explained. Not only does she search for up-to-date and desirable goods people want to buy, she also ensures they are ethically produced and traded. To do this, she uses the Fair Trade Federation and the World Fair Trade Organization.

“The artisans and farmers join these organizations and are vetted,” she said. This assures her that the products she purchases for FairTrade Caravans are made in locations with no child labor, good working conditions, and the producers are paid a fair labor wage – all without having to personally visit each location. (Although this is something she and Carol hope to do in the future!)

Overall, Christine loves working at FairTrade Caravans because it connects her to people around the world. She wants to help everyone see the benefits of fair trade.

“To me, fair trade means a global society. It means connecting with people in other parts of the world who may not have the opportunity to sell their products in a market that can pay a fair value for them.”

Many other countries are doing a better job of selling fair trade items than we are in the U.S. “How can we get better at fair trade consciousness here?”, she asks. “There are a lot of beautiful, handcrafted products made by artisans who deserve to receive a fair wage for their work in addition to decent working conditions in which to work.” The challenge is getting their goods out there for more people to see. FairTrade Caravans is doing just that! “We educate schools and nonprofits that there is more behind a product than the cost of an item.”, explains Christine. “It is about realizing there is a human face behind all the items we purchase.”

Christine Mont-Labutte

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