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IU senior dedicated to fair trade work

Feb. 3, 2016

Macaira O’Connell came to IU with a love for fashion and a great interest in the retail profession, but here she discovered an unknown passion within the industry that would shape her future goals and lead her to national recognition.

Now a senior in IU’s apparel merchandising program with a double major in French and a minor in Business, O'Connell has a firm grasp on where she sees herself after graduation, and she attributes that to the many opportunities she has had at IU.

Thinking back on her first days in R100, the introductory course for all apparel merchandising majors, she admits she was a little unsure if retail was where she wanted to be.

macaira o'connell

Macaira O'Connell co-leads the Fair Trade University Campaign at IU, a grassroots movement to grow the fair trade movement in communities across the United States. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MACAIRA O'CONNELL

“I remember thinking that it all seemed a little too materialistic, even for someone who loves clothing and fashion,” O'Connell said.

However, it was in that same class that she was introduced to the idea of Fair Trade, which she found herself deeply passionate about.

“I started to see that retail could be a solution to help bring people out of poverty,” she said. “Fair Trade encourages the development of artisan’s skills as a way to sustain a greater quality of life.” 

As a freshman wanting to expand her knowledge of Fair Trade, O’Connell began volunteering with the Fair Trade Retailer Global Gifts at their Bloomington location. As a result, she had the opportunity to travel to Ecuador the summer after her freshman year with Minga Fair Trade Imports, a vendor incorporated with Global Gifts, another student and Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design Professor Mary Embry. They worked to conduct product trend research before embarking on the trip, in hopes to help Minga reach a new target market. While in Ecuador, they used their findings and worked with the artisans to incorporate trend elements into the various product lines. 

She also co-leads the Fair Trade University Campaign at IU, which Professor Embry asked her to spearhead after their trip to Ecuador. The national organization is a grassroots movement to grow the fair trade movement in communities across the United States. O’Connell and her team work to raise awareness for Fair Trade and ethical purchasing on campus through events and outreach with other IU channels. Their biggest event is the annual Fair Trade Holiday Sale where they partner with Global Gifts to sell merchandise on campus. Over the past three years, the group has raised over $13,000 in profits from the sale, O’Connell said.

“Macaira represents the best of our merchandising program -- she is engaged in understanding retail in all of its global complexity but has a clear vision and focus as to what the potential is of a sustainable and fair industry,” Professor Embry said.

When O’Connell applied for the National Retail Federation’s Next Generation Scholarship, she wasn’t sure she would stand out against the best of the best from across the United States. However, after several rounds of judging, she was selected as a top five finalist, traveled to New York for the NRF’s Gala where she networked with top retail executives and was awarded $10,000 in scholarship funds.

“With this national recognition, she is a testament to what is possible when you act everyday according to your beliefs and passions,” Embry said.

O’Connell’s essays and platform throughout the scholarship process focused on social responsibility in retail, an area of the industry she plans to enter after graduation. At the Gala she had the opportunity to meet Laysha L. Ward, IU alum and Target’s executive vice president and chief corporate social responsibility officer.

“It was incredible and overwhelming to be in a room and network with people I aspire to be one day,” O’Connell said. 

O'Connell's work aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success and global engagement.

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