Like many business owners, Marcie Muehlke was inspired to start her company when she wanted to buy something that didn't exist.
While planning her wedding in 2009, Muehlke set out to find a fair-trade wedding dress. She wanted the wedding to reflect her values, and that included finding a dress that wasn't made in a sweatshop but rather by people who were paid fairly, treated fairly and worked in safe conditions.
"I wanted a gorgeous dress, and I didn't want to worry about where it came from and the possibility of kids having made it. That was my 'aha' moment," said Muehlke, who founded her fair-trade wedding dress company, Celia Grace, in 2012. "No designer could provide me that. I did a lot of Internet searching, called, and there just wasn't anything out there."
As it turns out, Muehlke wasn't alone in her search. While green weddings have long been popular — the industry has reached $2 billion annually — fair trade weddings, a subset of an industry, are catching on, too. Experts in the wedding industry say a growing number of couples are requesting fair-trade products, including clothing, coffee, tea, chocolate, flowers, and even shoes and hair accessories.
"We are seeing more couples every year actively seeking fair-trade products for their wedding, especially ones that are easy to acquire, such as coffee and tea for the reception, and chocolate wedding favors," said Kate Harrison, author of the book "The Green Bride Guide" (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2008) and founder of the website Green Bride Guide, which she later sold to mywedding.com.
Harrison, who wrote the book and founded the website because of her own difficulties in finding green products for her 2007 wedding, said the term "fair trade" refers mostly to food and textiles. However, it falls squarely in the category of green weddings, and most of the products are also eco-friendly, she said.
Harrison said fair-trade products still represent a relatively small percentage of the green wedding market, but those numbers are growing. The market is poised for further growth, she said, as more people are becoming interested in and aware of ethically sourced foods and products, including ethical fashion.The Maya dress by socially responsible wedding company, Celia Grace. Credit: Sugiyama Photography
"For me, going green and fair-trade ethics are so intimately aligned," she said. "If the people making [the products] are not supporting themselves and their families and they're living in horrible conditions, that's really problematic. This all goes with the messaging of weddings in general. Weddings are really about a sustainable future together, so it's important to pick products that don't hurt people or the environment."
Jeff Miklos, co-owner of New Jersey-based online florist BowKay.com, sells fair-trade flowers for weddings and other occasions. He contacted Fairtrade International, one of several organizations that set standards for fair-trade products, because he wanted to run a more socially conscious company, he said. Miklos estimates that about 5 to 10 percent of couples he works with request fair-trade flowers for their weddings.
Although that may seem like a small percentage, it's "100 percent more than five years ago," Miklos said. "It's gaining traction." People are more socially conscious these days, he added, and "they want to attach meaning to their weddings."
Miklos, who sources his fair-trade flowers from farms in Ecuador, said he feels good about knowing the workers are being treated fairly.
"For me, knowing where the product has come from and who works on it is important," Miklos said. "I've been in the fields in South America in absolute poverty. I've seen people living in cardboard boxes. I'm happy to be part of fair trade. It makes me feel good about what we do in my industry."
When Muehlke started Celia Grace, she invested time and research into finding fair-trade materials and people to sew the dresses who worked in fair conditions, she said. Much of the silk comes from rural Cambodian villages, which Muehlke visited herself in order to inspect the working conditions. Other materials are made in the United States.
Not surprisingly, fair-trade wedding products tend to cost more. Celia Grace's dresses range from about $500 to $5,000. For comparison, the average amount spent on a dress nationwide, according to The Knot, was $1,281 in 2013. Fair-trade flowers at BowKay.com usually cost about 10 to 20 percent more than non-fair-trade flowers, Miklos said. Fair-trade foods also tend to cost about 10 to 20 percent more, Harrison said.
With some creativity, however, it's possible to do fair trade on a budget, Harrison noted. Brides can buy a fair-trade dress and then sell it after the wedding for 60 to 70 percent of the value, she said, or they can buy fair-trade flowers from a wholesaler and then hire someone else to do the arranging, for a lower overall cost.
There's also a good reason fair-trade items are more expensive, Harrison said.
"That's because that money is going straight into the hands of the workers," she said. "I think of that money as a donation to a social cause."