Dollars That Do Good?
Unsure whether to buy that gorgeous Guatemalan basket…or that one? Here’s how to make sure you’re choosing ethically.
Look for the story.
Experts agree that the more a seller is willing to share the story behind the product—whether online, or in the store’s display—the more a customer can rest easy. Adequate details usually mean that the seller is intimately acquainted with, and invested in, her artisans.
Look for the Fair Trade mark.
Is the seller a member of the Fair Trade Federation? Although many reputable businesses in the industry may not have
the means to go through the rigorous process to become a member of the Fair Trade Federation, this symbol is a postitive sign of the businesses’ practices.
The Fair Trade Federation and World of Good’s Priya Haji agree that as a consumer, asking questions is one of the best things you can do. “Consumers keep [the handcrafted sector] on track,” Haji says. “We focus on how to ensure that our standards are high, so that consumers can engage and ask questions.”
Unraveling Women’s Fair Trade
Selling beautiful crafts to support the artisans who create them makes everyone feel good. But are these businesses truly sustainable?
One day, halfway into a trip to Uganda, Colorado psychologist Torkin Wakefield took an afternoon walk with her daughter and a family friend. They stopped to talk with a local woman who was sitting by the road crafting necklaces. The woman told them that to support herself she crushed rocks by hand in a quarry nearby for a dollar a day; in her spare time, she and her friends made necklaces by rolling brightly colored paper—trash that they’d recovered—into beads and stringing the beads into necklaces. “Why aren’t you selling these?” Wakefield asked, after convincing the woman to let her buy a handful. “There’s no market for them,” the woman answered.
Back in the US, after countless friends admired their necklaces, the three women wondered, ‘Is there really no market, or is it simply that the women haven’t found the right one yet?’ “We started thinking about how we could sell the beads in a way that wasn’t about retail, but was about women to women,” explains Wakefield.“We knew people would be interested in stories of resilient, hardworking women who were taking trash paper and turning it into something beautiful—something that could give them hope.”
In 2004 Bead for Life was born. Their ambitious goal: help Ugandan beadmakers support themselves within the local economy. Their plan: hire a Uganda-based team to train the artisans in quality control (making higher quality beads at a faster pace); buy the beads from the artisans and sell them to a viable US market; use the net profits from the sales to train each artisan in a business that would be sustainable (like a dry goods store, a taxi service, or a restaurant); and then help the artisan launch that enterprise—all within 27 months.
Though none of the organization’s founders had a business background, Bead for Life has made impressive strides toward its poverty eradication mission in the five years it’s been in operation. Not only has the program graduated hundreds of beaders who have gone on to earn regular incomes in various economic sectors, they have also provided elementary, secondary, and vocational training for impoverished youth, assisted beaders in building over 100 affordable housing units, and started a grants program that is providing financial backing to other organizations working to end poverty.
While Bead for Life has been more successful than some of its cohorts, it is just one of many organizations that has tapped into a retail narrative that is playing out across America, in small private boutiques, in major retailers like Whole Foods and New Seasons, and online. The idea is simple: Buy beautiful, “exotic” crafts—baskets from Guatemala, jewelry from Afghanistan, textiles from South Asia—and help women work their way out of poverty.
It’s commerce with a conscience in a market that is increasingly focused on not only eco-friendly, but also people-friendly, business practices and products. With its roots in the fair trade movement—which is fundamentally a strategy for creating ethical economic opportunities for communities that have been exploited by conventional trading systems—it seems this brand of empowerment commerce is a simple win-win enterprise for both the artisans who make the products and the entrepreneurs who buy and sell them.
But the reality is less clear. World Pulse talked to eight businesses who confirmed that there are many challenges within the sector that make it difficult to grow their businesses, and all agreed that one of the biggest issues is its ultimate sustainability. “Artisans get paid upfront, whether the product sells or not,” explains Liz Wald, a former crafts importer who is now the director of international business development at Etsy, an online marketplace of handmade items. “But if you don’t do it in a way where you can have a profitable business, you’re not really helping people in the long run. I was self-funded and ultimately, I left the industry. I realized I could continue to do this as my personal charity, but who’s going to pay my rent?”
“There aren’t that many people who are really trying to save the world with every purchase,” says Wald. “So you have to have a tremendously good product that’s fairly priced first, and then do a good job of telling your story.” None of this is as easy to do as you may think, which probably explains why there is a wide array of business models in the industry, but still no definitive answer as to which, if any, of these businesses will create a model that will bea long-term help to artisans, as well as a profitable enterprise that will outlast its founder’s personal commitment to its success.
Some artisan handicraft sellers are not-for-profit, others are for-profit; some sell one product, others sell hundreds of different items. Most of the businesses that World Pulse interviewed don’t have the resources to set up offices on the ground in different areas around the world, so they partner with established nongovernmental organization s (NGOs) that act as the middlemen between the artisans and the businesses. The entrepreneurs regularly travel to the artisans’ countries to visit some or all of the producers they employ.
Within this setup, general logistics prove to be a challenge to businesses. Yes, the world is growing ever smaller, thanks to technology, but language differences, and the fact that most of these businesses are getting crafts from women in hard-to-reach areas saddled with political instability and violence, means that communication is often a problem. And then there are the myriad cultural considerations. Questions that might be no-brainers from a business perspective—like whether you can return a shipment of orange bowls if you’ve ordered blue—take on a completely different meaning when those bowls are made by producers who are as emotionally tied to their work as they are financially dependent on it. “You need to be able to return an order if you’re working with suppliers and buyers who want to be able to return it,” says Shauna Alexander Mohr, former owner of a popular jewelry business that sourced materials from women’s cooperatives internationally. “But when you’re working with war widows, you can’t do that, from a heart and soul perspective.”
There are also different concepts of speed and consistency between the artisans and the buyers, notes Beth Kapsch, co-founder of Global Sistergoods, another online marketplace for handmade items. “Many of the groups we’re working with have typically been selling their products at market, and there’s great variation between what they consider the ‘same’ product,” she explains. “We’ve had situations where we’ve had 1,000 bracelets come in, but they would actually be 100 different things that were sort of bracelet-like, and in different colors, so then we’d have to divide them up into ten different products. Upon occasion our artisan partners are like, ‘Why would you want them all to be exactly the same?’ Which makes sense—they’re artists!” To overcome this issue, some of the buyers hire their NGO partners to offer quality and consistency trainings, and others work with organizations like Aid to Artisans, who make it their mission to help artisans meet this challenge.
Growing too quickly can take down a company with even the best of intentions, as Amber Chand says happened with her first foray into the world of empowerment commerce. Eziba, the company she co-founded in 1998, launched with $40 million in venture capital funds, and eventually collapsed—a turn of events that, she says, “absolutely stunned” her. One of the reasons that Eziba failed, Chand believes, was “the pressure to grow the company very quickly. The venture capital money needed huge returns, and we made marketing mistakes. It couldn’t find a way to sustain itself.” Now with her Amber Chand Collection that specializes in gifts from women artisans from areas that have been the center of conflict, she insists, “My vision is to start small and let the artisans know I’ll be working with them for years. My model is one of slow, steady, sustainable growth, giving women the opportunity to rebuild their lives. With big amounts of money you get intoxicated. Eziba was a good company, but the traditional model of business still harbors principles that I don’t think are ultimately viable.” . . .