Fair trade sports retailers poised for big jump

Fair Trade Sports President Scott James is hoping to bring his brand of socially and environmentally conscious sports equipment to a national audience. - Brad Camp | For the Review
Fair Trade Sports President Scott James is hoping to bring his brand of socially and environmentally conscious sports equipment to a national audience.
— image credit: Brad Camp | For the Review

The country’s first fair trade sports equipment retailer may soon become a national name.

Fair Trade Sports, a Bainbridge-based online retailer of sports balls made by workers from other countries who are paid equitable wages and guaranteed good conditions, is in the process of product testing up and down the West Coast for Costco.

Bringing Costco into the fold would be a coup for the company and it’s president, Scott James, who lives on Bainbridge. But either way he won’t forget about the independent retailers that have helped the company rise to this point.

For four years, James and his baker’s dozen of employees have been slinging soccer balls made by workers from Pakistan using ecologically sensitive rubber. He believes his company is on the ground floor of a movement of fair trade into household popularity.

“I think we’re getting to the point where fair trade moves from the fringe into the mainstream, following the same pattern we saw for organics 15 years ago,” James said.

James started the company in 2006 when his wife was pregnant with the couple’s first child. A former Microsoft employee, James wanted to do something he would be proud to tell his future child about. He knew of the fair trade and sustainability movements, and when he heard about the development of fair trade balls for sports, James, an avid soccer fan who still plays occasionally, jumped on it.

“I had a natural passion for soccer,” he said. “My wife and I share a passion for helping others, and I wanted to be able to tell my first born I do something cool like mom does (social work).”

James focused on Internet marketing, zeroing in on Americans who were already interested in the sustainability movement. As word grew of his products, retailers, specifically those involved in fair trade, began knocking on James’ online door.

The company’s wholesale business grew, and so did its reputation. Soon Whole Foods wanted to feature fair trade soccer balls at its new stores in London. Most recently, the United Nations ordered custom made balls to show off for guests and VIPs at the recent World Cup in South Africa.

But the company’s rising popularity hasn’t completely insulated it from the poor economic conditions facing the business community. James said the company has lost a number of wholesale clients as the economic issues take their toll. But, James said, with problems come chances.

“I am a firm believer that crazy times means great opportunities,” he said. “There’s opportunities to really change things.”

James said the biggest opportunity could come from persuading one of the larger producers and distributors, such as Nike, to make a change and use fair trade practices and green materials to make balls.

“The rest of the industry will have to convert, and then I feel like we can declare victory,” James said.

As the company’s expansion progresses, James continues to service independent fair trade shops. Traditions Cafe and World Folk Art in Olympia has been a long-time customer of Fair Trade Sports. Store owner Dick Meyer said Fair Trade has always been responsive to his store’s needs, and the company provides a nice alternative to some of the more sizable sports equipment producers.

“Large companies make short-sighted decisions as to the welfare of workers at what they assume is the ignorance of the customer,” he said.

And while having fair trade principles and ecologically friendly materials is great, Meyer said, it won’t do much unless the product can hold up against competitors in quality and price. The balls retail for about $30, which is close in price to major competitors.

James said the company doesn’t have any partnerships with Bainbridge organizations at this point, but several schools in Seattle use fair trade balls. And Soccer Nation, a company with branches in Federal Way, Tacoma and Bremerton, is a primary seller of the products.

The product line is growing as the demand increases. The company already produces soccer balls, basketballs, volleyballs and footballs and will soon be venturing into baseball and tennis.

James has diversified his responsibilities outside Fair Trade Sports as much as the company has its products. In addition to his company, James teaches marketing at Bainbridge Graduate Institute, and he is involved with local sustainable organizations such as Sound Food and Sustainable Bainbridge. He writes a monthly article for Forbes Magazine on corporate responsibility. But how does he find time for all this, and spending time with his family?

“I’m just a geek for personal productivity,” he said.

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