Conscience Decision

Trade Roots specializes in fair-trade wares from around the world.

Earlier this year, the collapse of a Bangladesh factory left more than 1,100 garment workers dead, sending shockwaves through our consumer-driven culture and raising some important questions. Is our desire for cheap, fast fashion fueling an industry that exploits its workforce with disastrous consequences? Do we really know where our money is going? I began to think long and hard about how I might be unwittingly supporting unfair labor practices with my wallet.

My trip to Trade Roots, the fair-trade gift and home goods store in Westover Village, couldn’t have come at a better time. I liked the idea of shopping at a store where some of the profits go directly to the artisan workers who make what’s on the shelves.

But I’ll be honest: Walking into the store for the first time, I was put off by the beachy windsocks and lawn decorations out front; the Bob Marley-driven playlist; the bohemian hodgepodge of merchandise crammed into the snug little space.

Then I spied a small table strewn with intricately beaded bracelets. And, from behind an otherwise unremarkable rack of tent-shaped tunics with a sign that declared “We Are All One Size” (I liked the double entendre), a pile of John Robshaw-esque Indian block-print table linens. Next, I zeroed in on a delicate bamboo bowl, its underside dipped in glossy turquoise paint, which fit neatly in the palm of my hand.

These half-hidden gems might have been what lured me in, but it was store owner Lisa Ostroff who won me over.

We all know Ostroff, or someone like her: wife (her husband, Read deButts, has a small communications firm in the same building); mother of four who set aside her career for a time to focus on her family; serial volunteer at every team bake sale and school auction.

As her boys grew older (two are now in college), Ostroff found herself searching for a way to have a bigger impact on her community and the world. In October 2012, she opened Trade Roots in the former Arax Café space on Washington Boulevard. Though new to retail, she found the venture to be a natural marriage of her background in international development and her humble, but consuming, desire to do good.

“I was dutifully sending my money to Save the Children and United Way,” Ostroff explains, with hope in her voice, “but I feel that this is a more direct way to improve people’s lives. They’re not sitting around and waiting for money; they’re working for it and they see a direct result.”

Espousing the mantra, trade, not aid, Trade Roots sells merchandise on behalf of women-run microenterprises abroad whose products are made with indigenous materials.

“Our goal is to teach them how to run a business in a safe environment and give them an outlet to sell the things they make,” Ostroff says. The store also provides a platform for these entrepreneurs to share some of their cultural traditions across borders.

As I set my sights on a vivid blue bib necklace, Ostroff explains that the lozenge-shaped beads are made from tagua, a nut that’s plentiful in Central and South America. Priced at $68, the piece is a dead ringer for something you’d see at Free People or Anthropologie, but I feel better knowing that some of the sale will go directly to the jewelry makers in Ecuador.

Continuing my treasure hunt, I get the sense that Ostroff’s desire to help everybody has made it hard for her to say no to her vendors—hence, the store’s overwhelming and somewhat haphazard selection of merch. It’s dizzying, but rewarding for those who are willing to dig.

The hacky sacks and animal-themed tchotchkes aren’t up my alley, but a burnished olive wood bowl and set of hand-carved salad servers from Kenya are. (I make a mental note that they would make excellent hostess gifts.)

I also swoon over a graphic black-and-white woven basket from Uganda that seems like it should cost more than its $29 price tag; a pair of finely beaded turquoise-and-coral necklaces from India that look like museum-worthy artifacts; and a vivid wall of decorative candles made in South Africa.

A few days later, I find the same brightly colored candles for sale in the Kennedy Center’s gift shop—priced 25 percent higher than they are at Trade Roots.

Ostroff admits that she’s still figuring out what her customers want, although it’s clear (from the conversations I overhear during my visit) that many locals are simply appreciative of her store’s existence. It allows them to support communities in developing countries, even if they never get to visit those places in person.

It’s also a place where consumers can shop with purpose and buy gifts that keep on giving.

Know of a great little shop that needs discovering? Email style columnist Adrienne Wichard-Edds at

Trade Roots, 5852 Washington Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22205, 571-335-4274,

Categories: Style