The area around Cajamarca, Peru is heart-stoppingly beautiful: majestic rocky mountains dotted with fertile patches of potato and corn fields and tidy dairy farms. We feel a special bond with ‘Peru’s Dairyland’ being from Wisconsin ourselves. The Queso Fresco is quite tasty, though I promised next time I’d try to smuggle in some of Wisconsin’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve and we’d have a Dairyland Duel.


But in the midst of all this brilliant natural beauty and fertile earth exists unbearable poverty too. With collapsing commodity prices for small farmers in the globalized economy and scant transportation infrastructure to Peru’s more dynamic coastal areas, many of the people in this once prosperous region survive on minuscule incomes and sustenance nutrition.

The children of the area, until recently, had nearly no hope of having things any better than their parents. The nearest school was miles (and hours) away via treacherous mountain roads. So what happens to kids in this situation? They. Don’t. Attend. School. Without education, there is no hope.

Ines, founder of the school.

In 2000, Ines Fort set out to change that – and plant the seeds of hope. A native of Cajamarca who lived in Peru’s capital Lima for many years, she returned to open a school near her home town, “en el medio de la nada” (“in the middle of nowhere”) and started teaching local children in a makeshift classroom without running water or electricity. Within minutes of meeting Ines, I guarantee your hug instinct will take over. This gentle woman overflows with compassion and warmth and burns with devotion to the families of her home town. She tells her story here.

Later her brother-in-law, Javier, joined Ines in her mission. Javier, another extraordinarily generous soul and self-proclaimed farmer at heart, is also the co-owner, with his wife Elsa, of the business that makes Fair Indigo’s women’s organic knits and The Joobles organic baby line.

Javier was moved to action when he observed the children had a hard time staying awake in the classroom, he surmised because their breakfast consisted of a tea of water and orange peel. Here is Javier (with our magnificently helpful friend and translator Sergio) explaining how and why he started providing breakfast for the children of the school.
In 2010, thanks to your $5 donations at checkout, the Fair Indigo Foundation began funding the teachers for the school, and today we’re back visiting their newly opened kindergarten. The parents of the area are bursting with energy, gratitude, and hope. If their children can learn reading, math, and more, there is hope for them to participate in Peru’s booming economy around Lima or, better still, to bring a more lucrative economy back to their beloved Cajamarca.  I know it sounds crazy that a teaching staff could be funded with $5 donations. But you did it! It makes all of us profoundly thankful. You’ve helped put smiles on these faces. You’ve given the best gift of all – hope.

Camera-shy but proud.


New kindergarteners.

Basic, yes. But an unquestionably beautiful place.

Each child brings water (a heavy lift up and down hills!)  To boil for drinking and supply flushing water for their new indoor toilet.

Javier doing what he loves. Handing out treats from the big city.

The school. Pride and joy.

On this day of Thanksgiving, we at Fair Indigo, and the teachers, parents, and children of Cajamarca, Peru give special thanks to you. Whether you’ve supported our small business through purchases (which by extension keeps The Foundation going) or made a $5 donation at checkout, you’ve instilled hope in the lives of truly grateful people. Thank you.

The “greenest” tees are the ones that last.


There are countless ways to judge how environmentally responsible t-shirts are.

Does the t-shirt use organic cotton? What about the dyes and chemicals used in the processing of the fabric? How many miles did the tee have to travel on a boat, plane, or truck to its end user? What kind of packaging did it arrive in? On top of these, who certified the cotton organic? Whose organic standard was used?

While these are all important, one of the most overlooked measurements is this:    how long will this t-shirt last?

We don’t know of studies showing the average life of a mass produced tee, but we know instinctively it’s shorter than it was years ago. That $12 tee you bought three years ago? Exactly. There’s not much sustainable about a disposable organic tee.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the lifespan is a year. Imagine the impact of building a t-shirt that lasts 4 years or longer. That’s 75% less cotton. 75% less water. 75% less packaging. 75% less fuel.

So when we set out to create the World’s Finest Tees (dresses & skirts too!), longevity was top of mind. Here’s what we do:

1. Start with pure organic Peruvian pima cotton. The Andean climate of Peru yields irresistible pima cotton–among the finest in the world–renowned for its sublime softness, brilliant luster, and resistance to breaking down and pilling. Rare organic pima is even softer. With no pesticides or chemicals getting in the way of its natural goodness.

2. Build in shape retention. This may irk some purists, but we add a dash of spandex to many of our tees. It allows the tee to hold its shape beautifully over time, not stretching out. (For purists, we do offer a collection of 100% pima organic cotton tees, dresses, & skirts too).

3. Pre-wash the fabric. Before we cut the fabric for sewing, it’s gently washed, extracting almost all of the shrinkage before sewing. This is a much more expensive method than the typical garment wash. But it insures that tees will fit consistently from batch to batch. And, critically, that the tees will have very minimal shrinkage over years of washing so they’re not catapulted into the disposable category.

Image4. Build in economic sustainability. In our view, environmental responsibility goes hand in hand with economic and social responsibility. Making organic tees in a sweatshop to keep their prices lower is simply misguided. All of our tees are made by a small group of workers and cooperative owners like Viviana. Workers paid living wages and treated with respect and dignity.


foundation5. Pay it forward. Proceeds from Fair Indigo’s profits (along with $5 donations at website checkout) support the Fair Indigo Foundation. The Foundation supports education in the communities where our products are made. Because we firmly believe…no, we know because we’ve seen it…that besides paying living wages, the best ticket out of poverty is education. (Read more).

With premium ingredients, fashionable yet timeless designs, and values you can wear on your sleeves, the World’s Finest Tees will be spot on trend this season. And the next and the next and the next.

Stuff, Stuff, and More Stuff

Our guest blogger today is Forrest Espinoza, founder and CEO of Artterro. Artterro Eco Art Kits are fun, open-ended art projects that make it easy for kids and adults to unplug and get creative with gorgeous, artist-quality materials.  The kits are assembled at Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin by people with special needs.   

Every year when the holidays roll around I start to think about the all the Stuff. I start to feel a little sad, and I’m reminded of the movie The Story of Stuff.  If you haven’t watched it, it’s about how our stuff is made out of raw materials from the earth and how most of it ends up in a landfill only six months after it’s made.  Just when I’m resolving not to contribute to this huge problem, one of my young sons runs up to me with a list in his hands and a big smile on his face and says, “Here Mom, this is what I want for my birthday and Christmas.”  Both my sons have birthdays the week before Christmas, so that means we tend to get twice the amount of Stuff this time of year.  At that point, I snap out of my anti-Stuff mindset and tell myself that I need to start thinking about it in a different way.  We don’t have to buy disposable Stuff.  We can buy truly meaningful, even life-changing gifts for the people we love, plus we can make some special gifts by hand.

One of my favorite ways to make a difference with my dollar is to buy Fair Trade, which means an artisan has been paid a fair wage for their work.  It feels like buying a gift for three people: the recipient who gets to enjoy it, the artisan who is strengthening her community and family, and yourself, because it just feels good to give Fair Trade!

I’m also partial to giving a gift that offers a hands-on experience, like art materials or my own Artterro Eco Art Kits.  When you give a child the gift of art, you offer them a chance to unplug and tap into their creativity.

Finally, we can also make very special gifts ourselves.  It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive.  Try finding a project idea online that you can complete with new and used materials.  It’s a great way to upcycle supplies you may have lying around your house, and you end up with a totally unique finished product.

For many years now I have been doing all three of these things.  I feel so good knowing that I gave my money to good companies, I’m giving my kids gifts that are educational, and I’m giving things I already own a new life and home.  It helps me feel better about all this Stuff not ending up in a landfill in six months.  Okay, I’m off to make some handmade gifts—wish me luck that I will get them done on time!

How to Make a Peaceful Wreath

An evergreen wreath in the shape of a peace sign is not the kind of thing you stumble upon every day. But it was just what we had in mind for our Holiday 2012 catalog (view it now with these free iPad apps – Coffee Table and Catalog Spree) and we were determined to make it happen. We gathered the evergreens from a plot of family-owned land outside of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, and enlisted the help of our former-floral-shop-worker-friend Katie. Follow the instructions below to make your very own!

Supplies Needed:

  1. Wire wreath frame (15”) from local craft store
  2. 18 gauge wire to create the inside lines of the peace sign
  3. Spool or paddle wire
  4. Mix of evergreens (balsam, white pine, etc.)
  5. Wire cutters to cut the two types of wire
  6. Garden shears to cut evergreen

How to create the wreath:

  1. Start by taking 2 – 18 gauge wires (also 18” long) and wrap one end around the top center of the inside of the wreath frame.
  2. Take the other end and wrap it around the bottom center of the inside of the wreath frame.  (See figure below)

  1. On the center wire, locate a point 10-12” down from the top.

4. Take another set of 18 gauge wires and start from the center wire about 10-12” down. Now attach on the center wire and go to outside wreath frame to create the angled pieces of the peace sign.

5. Now take the evergreen you have gathered and cut the branches and tips into 5” pieces.

6. Start at the bottom and wrap end of the paddle wire securely around the wreath frame as an anchor.

7. Create small clusters of 3-4 pieces of evergreen, if needed wire them together at the bottom.  Lay them flat (we started at the bottom and went counter clockwise).

8. Now wrap the paddle wire around the piece of evergreen you have laid down, securing their position.

9. Now continue around the wreath counterclockwise securing additional pieces of evergreen and continuing to wrap the paddle wire around the evergreen and wreath frame.

10. Cut and secure the paddle wire when needed (every 4-5 inches) and secure by wrapping around the wreath frame

11. As you continue around stopping when you get to the top where the wires are attached for the peace sign.

12. Once at the top, do the same technique as you have been doing around the frame by starting at the bottom of the center wire and working your way up to where the side pieces of the piece sign come together.  Work your way from the outside in and then continue to the top of the center wire after the three spokes at the bottom have come together.

13. Once you are back at the top continue counter clockwise down the frame until you meet up to the evergreen already attached at the bottom.

14. Viola, you are done, now hang on your door.

Small Business Saturday

Many people are surprised to learn Fair Indigo has fewer than 10 employees.

We are a tiny handful of people who are privileged to share a daunting, humbling, but uplifting purpose. We comb the globe from Burlington, North Carolina to Chiang Mai, Thailand in search of uniquely beautiful clothing and gifts – all made with immense care by people whose lives have been changed by the availability of safe, clean work and living wages. We’re a small business by anyone’s definition, but with a hopeful eye on the big world we all call home.

When you call us, you’re not calling contracted employees at a mega call center. Our phones ring right here in Madison, Wisconsin. Go ahead. Give us a call at 800.520.1806 and see for yourself. You will likely to reach Mary, Carol, Ellen, or Stacy. If they’re all busy on the phone, you might even get our president Rob on the line. (He loves those days!).

Shopping at Fair Indigo not only supports our small business, but dozens of others – our small scale suppliers and cooperative partners – all over the country and the world. It’s like a Feel Good Double Coupon!

This year, be a better gift giver!
Thank you for supporting small business.
Your friends at Fair Indigo

Arequipa. Alpaca’s Capital City.

Situated at 2,335 meters (7,661 feet) above sea level in the Andes Mountains, Arequipa is Peru’s second most populous city with a population of nearly a million. Despite its location in the tropic zone, the elevation prevents it from exceeding 77 degrees Fahrenheit or dipping below 40 at night. At the higher elevations outside the city, the temperature drops much lower (as we unwittingly discovered on our last trip there…even our hearty Wisconsin skin was no match for the fierce Andean winds).

Andes Mountains seen through one of Arequipa’s narrow streets.

Santa Catalina Monastery, built in 1580.

Vicunas (alpaca’s cousins) grazing just outside Arequipa.

A woman sits outside her home in the Los Tambos neighborhood.

Arequipa’s Central Square

Santa Catalina Monastery

A colorful street.

A local resident watching a parade in celebration of Arequipa’s many weekend festivals (Peruvians are good at finding reasons to celebrate!)

See more pictures of Arequipa here.

Fair Indigo ended up in Arequipa because it serves as the regional hub for Peru’s sustainable alpaca herding and knitting. The ancient Incas called alpaca the “fiber of the gods.” We call it the “Cashmere of the Andes.” An ethical option for those who want something really special, but are reluctant to indulge in cashmere because of the factory farm model it usually adheres to. We’ve offered our Baby Alpaca Scarf (no, not from baby alpacas!) since 2006 and it continues to be one of our top sellers year after year. A classic gift, made fairly. Workers like Manuela below enjoy a decent living and upward mobility thanks to our customers’ continued purchases of this scarf.

Employees enjoy a free health clinic on site.

Employees enjoying a lunch of delicious Peruvian cuisine.

Here’s Manuela finishing up the “fringe” on our alpaca scarf.

These alpacas are herded and sheared sustainably and with great care. The market for their fleece in North America grows little by little each year but is dwarfed by the mammoth cashmere industry. We’re grateful for our customers who are helping to turn the tide. You can see our growing collection of alpaca styles here.

100 Billion Single Use Plastic Bags Are Used and Discarded Every Year

When you have a single bag in your hands, it seems like a small deal. What’s one plastic bag going to add to the world’s waste glut? But when you take a hundred billion of them and throw in the fact that each one takes 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill, you can see what a difference using reusable bags would make.

Here are some other not so fun facts:

  • 12 million barrels of oil are used to make a year’s use of plastic bags.
  • Only 1-2% of these bags are recycled.
  • Thousands of marine animals and over a million birds die each year as a result of plastic pollution.

And that’s just the plastic. 10 billion paper bags are consumed each year using the resources from 14 million trees.

Fair Indigo’s decision to carry Envirosax Reusable Shopping Bags was not without much internal discussion. They are not made of natural or recycled materials. They are not bio-degradable.

But our philosophy has always been how to help consumers move the ethical shopping needle furthest and fastest. Organic canvas totes may be the purest solution, but they tend to be heavier and bulkier. Our thinking was that we could help hundreds of people change their shopping habits with canvas bags or thousands, maybe tens of thousands, with super cool, super stylish, and super well-designed Envirosax. With limited inventory purchasing resources, we went with Envirosax and have never looked back.

In fact, since late 2008, our customers have put over 60,000 reusable shopping bags in circulation. That’s potentially 7.2 million fewer plastic bags used per year if each 40-pound capacity Envirosax replaced two plastic bags per week. A tiny drop in the 100 billion bucket, but a start. And with Envirosax’s new designs every season, we’re confident this is just the beginning.

Read more about or purchase these nifty bags here.

And check out this video showing how you can use Envirosax as a cool way to wrap your gifts!

The High Price of Free Shipping

When you get free shipping, you are more than likely deducting pay from someone else’s paycheck.  It’s not free for them.
One of the most frequent requests we get is “why don’t you offer free shipping promotions like other companies?” To understand the answer, it’s important to understand how other companies can do this using a combination of three tactics:
#1) If you’re large enough (many times larger than Fair Indigo), you can negotiate lower rates with shipping partners (UPS, Fedex, etc.).
#2) You can raise the price of individual items to cover the lost margin. For example, a company with a $29.99 shirt may raise the price to $33.50 to cover the “free shipping policy.” (As you may or may not know, you’ll sell lots less $33.50 shirts than $29.99 shirts…basic price barrier psychology).
#3) You can go after your garment suppliers for lower costs to make up the margin up front.
It is safe to say that #1 and #2 have largely been exhausted. With high fuel prices, shipping rates are becoming more and more difficult to lower and most consumers have little appetite for higher retails on clothing after years of falling prices.
So most companies are left with #3. Going after the price they pay the garment factory.
What goes into the cost of the garment? Primarily three things:
   a) cost of raw materials (e.g. cotton)
   b) cost of labor
   c) cost of transportation to get goods to
the warehouse or store
The cost of raw materials has done nothing but gone up in the past several years. Same with the cost of transportation.  So…the workers take the hit.
Let’s be clear. Despite the sweatshop scandals that started with the Kathie Lee Gifford line in the late 1990’s, and despite the Corporate Social Responsibility standards adopted by all major apparel brands, know this: widespread pay abuse of garment workers is real. It’s still happening. And it’s brutal. Here is an excellent and extensive article on the topic. While major apparel brands preach social responsibility, often with very good intentions, they mercilessly push for lower costs at the same time. They can’t have it both ways.
I know from my own connections in the apparel industry that many companies are paying $2 for their t-shirts. For t-shirts they price between $20-$35, except during a 50% off “sale.” (When I left the mainstream apparel industry in 2005, it was not uncommon to pay between $5-$10 per t-shirt).
Most of our t-shirts sell for $20 – $35 too. But we pay many many multiples more than $2 per shirt to our fair trade cooperatives in Peru and to our USA suppliers. And when we mark them down 30%, it’s because we bought too many or designed a not-appealing-enough shirt (we call these dogs). Not because we planned it into our marketing strategy like most others. When we mark things down, the garment workers have already been paid. We take the responsibility and we take the hit (as our finance guy can vouch for!).
The math doesn’t lie. Free Shipping is clearly brutal on the lives of garment workers.
This blog reaches a few hundred people at most. It is nearly impossible to compete with the multi-million dollar corporate “free shipping” campaigns you’ll see. Please forward this to anyone you think will find it at all valuable or interesting. Thank you!

Alight with Joy and Hope

If you were to visit a certain village near Chiang Mai, Thailand, you’d see a thriving settlement filled with devoted families, a busy marketplace and a newly improved school. Yet two decades ago this was an area so desperately poor that families were often forced to send their children to work in Bangkok’s treacherous factories.

But all that has changed.

Today, more than 400 neighbors work with fair trade importer Pilgrim Imports of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to produce the intricate hand-made metal and beads ornaments you see here. The jobs are satisfying, clean and pay a living wage. No one thinks of dumping trash in rivers or using harmful chemicals because the villagers work where they live.

Today, more than 400 neighbors work with fair trade importer Pilgrim Imports of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to produce the intricate hand-made metal and beads ornaments you see here. The jobs are satisfying, clean and pay a living wage. No one thinks of dumping trash in rivers or using harmful chemicals because the villagers work where they live.

The “acid” used to clean the metal ornaments is citrus juice, unlike the toxic kinds used in mainstream factories. They are proud to preserve village traditions, so happy children don’t have to migrate to Bangkok, and deeply moved people like you enjoy their art.

As brightly as these ornaments shine, their makers smiles shine brighter still. Share the joy by purchasing these fair trade ornaments for just about anyone on your list.

No Black Friday Here

No sale announcement.
No asking employees to report to work at midnight.
No dancing reindeer on our website.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we’d like to suggest
there are more meaningful things to do on Black Friday than lining up at 4am for the latest gadget or firing up the credit card online.

On the day that has come to symbolize over indulgence, how about donating to a food bank on  Black Friday? Take a child with you. Gather a group of friends to join you. End the day with your heart feeling full. A few other ideas…

Unexpectedly call a distant relative or friend and thank them for a past kindness.

Thank the clerks you come across for working on the holiday weekend.

Write (don’t email) a thank you note to someone who doesn’t expect it. A crossing guard, a paramedic, a trash collector.

Without being asked, buy a homeless person a cup of coffee or a hot sandwich. Give thanks that you are not in his or her shoes.

In the very least, reflect on the bounty in your life. However modest or grand.

Do you have another idea or tradition? Post them on our Facebook page or email us at We’ll share all of them in a future email.

Finally we’d like to thank you. You have benefited workers around the corner and around the world with your support.

Happy Thanksgiving

Your friends at Fair Indigo