Supporting artisan communities through fair trade, Zee Bee Market sells unique gifts from 37 countries around the world.

Zee Bee Market Makes It Fun to Shop Fair

Wednesday November 8, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

Zee Bee Market demands quality in the products on its shelves and in the lives of the people who make them.

The ethical retailer sells socially and environmentally conscious gifts from around the world – think dark chocolate from Peru, single-origin coffee from Ethiopia, felt birdhouses from Nepal and leather handbags from Nicaragua. By the door, the terracotta planters shaped like dogs, cats, chickens, elephants and llamas come from Bangladesh, while Guatemalan craftspeople make the ceramic mugs with Día de los Muertos-style sugar skull designs in the back.

Every item at Zee Bee Market has a beautiful story behind it, and every story shares a common denominator: an artisan community that directly benefits from the export and sale of their products.

“Unfortunately, in the conventional supply chain, the people in the fields and behind the machines don’t receive a fair wage, nor do they experience safe working conditions,” Julio Zegarra-Ballon, founder of Zee Bee Market, says. “The fair-trade movement, on the other hand, enables small and marginalized producers to live and work in dignity. In fair trade, prosperity – and profitability – are shared among all members of the supply chain.”

As part of the Fair Trade Federation, Zegarra-Ballon has access to countless handicrafts – all made with people and the planet in mind.

A shelf holds terracotta planters in the shape of dogs, cats, chickens, elephants and llamas.
Photo by Mark Hermes

In 2012, Peruvian-born Zegarra-Ballon launched his fair-trade business on a small scale, with just enough inventory to cover an 8-foot table at farmers markets and other events in the St. Louis region. “There was an appetite for the products that I was selling from the beginning,” he explains. “People want handcrafted, sustainable items that are available to them through fair-trade practices.”

Two years later, Zegarra-Ballon opened the first brick-and-mortar location of Zee Bee Market on South Grand Boulevard. “South Grand is such a vibrant community, and it already had an international vibe because of the restaurants in the area,” he says. “Since Zee Bee Market offers cultural gifts from 37 countries around the world, I felt like the neighborhood was a perfect fit.”

Inspired by the overwhelmingly positive response to the store, Zegarra-Ballon quit his corporate job within the year, fully committing to growing his social enterprise. Zee Bee Market’s second store opened in 2018.

This time around, location was just as important. After months of research, Zegarra-Ballon chose a storefront in Maplewood, near Schlafly Bottleworks, Acero and Kakao Chocolate. “The neighborhood is thriving,” he says. “There’s a great synergy between restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, independent retailers and other establishments.”

Julio Zegarra-Ballon poses in his fair-trade store in St. Louis.
Photo by Mark Hermes

Prior to opening Zee Bee Market, Zegarra-Ballon held virtually every position in the retail industry, including corporate buyer. When he puts that hat on today, he focuses on curating a collection that appeals to everyone, whether you’re looking for baby toys, brass jewelry or outdoor décor.

At the heart of its mission, though, Zee Bee Market aims to offer products that tell a story.

Most artisans featured at the boutique are women who don’t have the same opportunities as men to earn a living in their home countries. The suppliers in the Fair Trade Federation empower those women to use their talent, their experience and their cultural heritage to make products that people across the globe will want to buy. The undertaking changes their lives forever.

“As a father of two daughters, I want to take every opportunity to support women,” Zegarra-Ballon says. “Many women who work for fair-trade organizations have the chance to earn up to three times the minimum wage in their countries. They’re able to see a doctor for the first time in their lives; they’re able to send their children to school for the first time in their family’s history. Their stories are so powerful – I get emotional when I talk about them.”

Zegarra-Ballon has been particularly impressed by a group of women from India who use discarded saris to make one-of-a-kind bandanas, dish towels, bathrobes, throw pillows and blankets. The skilled artisans employ a technique called kantha, a centuries-old tradition of stitching patchwork cloth from recycled textiles, to produce the colorful, cotton pieces.

Zee Bee Market sells ceramic mugs with Día de los Muertos-style sugar skull designs.
Photo by Mark Hermes

Zegarra-Ballon cares deeply about the environment, and he loves to point out the products at Zee Bee Market that utilize recycled and upcycled materials. Working directly with artisans in Northern India and Haiti, respectively, he designed a wall-mounted coat rack built from reclaimed bicycle chains that spell out “St. Louis” as well as a decorative metal fleur-de-lis made from recovered oil drums.

The most surprising items, though, are the notebooks fabricated from elephant dung paper. That’s right – the animal waste is boiled, sanitized and pulped to create clean, odorless, acid-free, eco-friendly paper in Sri Lanka, home to approximately one-tenth of the world’s wild Asian elephants.

“These products don’t exploit finite resources; they use things that already exist to create new, beautiful, functional products,” Zegarra-Ballon says. “Everything at Zee Bee Market is also handcrafted, which doesn’t take a toll on the planet.”

Zee Bee Market sells fair-trade products with St. Louis flair.
Photo by Mark Hermes

If you’re shopping for the holidays, consider the myriad of meaningful presents at Zee Bee Market such as Kenyan Kisii stone carvings, ceramic bowls hand-painted in Tunisia, colorful dresses hand-stitched in Ghana or quilling cards handcrafted in Vietnam. Historians believe that quilling – the art of rolling, coiling and shaping small strips of colored paper to create cohesive, three-dimensional designs – dates back to Ancient Egypt. The beautiful art form has seen different resurgences over the years, and today, it’s alive and flourishing.

“Fair trade is one of those feel-good kinds of purchases,” Zegarra-Ballon says. “After you spot a product, learn the story behind its creation and fall in love with it, you can’t help yourself.”

After you’ve checked off everyone on your list, pick out something for yourself – maybe sparkling earrings from Indonesia, a stylish hat from Ecuador or plant-based soap from India. By shopping at Zee Bee Market – whether in stores or online – you become a force for good.